Lawsuit Lays Claim Over Priceless Iranian Artifacts
Washington, DC – In a lawsuit that serves as the intersection of victims’ rights, international law, state ownership of property, cultural heritage and diplomatic matters, plaintiffs in a suit pending before a United States federal court in Chicago, Illinois seek to obtain custody over certain historical artifacts –referred to as the “Persian Tablets” by the University of Chicago – as compensation for injuries sustained during a terrorist attack abroad.
The lawsuit arises from a September 4, 1997, suicide bombing perpetuated by members of the Hamas militant Islamic movement in a Jerusalem marketplace. The attack killed five people and injured more than a hundred. The survivors include Americans who were visiting Israel as tourists. These individuals are plaintiffs in a tort suit that names as defendants, among others, the Government of Iran and a number of its political elite. Originally, the Iranian government did not make an appearance to defend itself in the case. As a result, in 2003, a federal district court entered a default judgment against Iran and awarded the plaintiffs over 250 million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.
To satisfy the judgment, the plaintiffs sought to attach any assets of the Iranian government available in the United States. Among these assets are archaeological artifacts that have been on loan from the government of Iran to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute since 1930. However, the University of Chicago defended Iran’s rights to the artifacts.
One argument set forth by the university is that these assets are not available because of sovereign immunity. Foreign governments generally enjoy immunity from suit in the courts of the United States. Exceptions apply, however, where, for example, a foreign government engages in commercial activity or it is found to be involved in terrorism activities. The university has also argued that the scholarly value of the artifacts should make them exempt from being used to satisfy the judgment. Gil Stein, the director of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, is quoted in an article in the International Herald Tribune stating that while the institute has, “tremendous sympathy for victims of the attack, such cultural artifacts cannot be used to satisfy a commercial claim.” The artifacts detail the movement of people and goods around the Persian Empire. “No other scientifically excavated archival source exists anywhere,” said Stein. These arguments are generally supported by the Department of State and Department of Justice, who have made the additional argument that seizing the artifacts could damage US relations with other countries.
On June 22, 2006, the federal district court ruled that the University of Chicago did not have standing to assert the sovereign immunity defense on behalf of Iran, which, up until that time, was absent from the proceedings. The district court wrote that while it was "sympathetic” to the university's fears that an auction of the artifacts would result in fewer international loans to American museums, the university's, “accusation that the courts of the United States are hostile to Iran and that, Iran should be excused from bothering to assert its rights, is wholly unsupported."
After years of refusing to participate in the case, Iran has retained Washington-based attorney Thomas Corcoran to defend its ownership of the historical artifacts. In an interview with the Washington Post Corcoran said, “things were looking bad for the Iranians. Iran asked me to note an appearance to assert Iran’s immunities.”
In response to reactions from Iranian Americans, a number of Iranian American civic organizations have been involved with educational and other efforts in connection with this litigation. Mr. Shervin Boloorian, Legislative Director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), believes that this sort of case should “set off alarm bells” through the community. “NIAC is most concerned with how a wrong verdict will reflect on the Iranian people’s right to retain their cultural patrimony,” says Boloorian. “In this case, we are required to separate Iran’s ancient culture from today’s political environment.” NIAC is preparing a coordinated strategy to block the sale of the clay tablets. “This can be achieved through a proactive grassroots strategy and will involve such measures as contacting top Bush administration officials to support the case’s dismissal or the writing of briefs in opposition of the plaintiffs’ claims.”
The Iranian American Bar Association (IABA) is studying the issue. IABA also intends to prepare an educational piece on the litigation to inform the Iranian American community about the posture of the case and the legal issues involved.