In two lawsuits with implications for museum collections across the nation, a group of Americans is suing Iran, hoping to seize antiquities to satisfy a judgment against Tehran for allegedly sponsoring a deadly terrorist attack.
On Wednesday a judge in U.S. District Court in Chicago extended the period of oversight on museums that have custody of Iranian historical artifacts. In early April, the judge will rule on whether the Americans are entitled to take the artifacts as compensation for the injuries they suffered in a bomb blast in Israel in 1997.
It's the latest chapter in a drama pitting Americans against a foreign country — as well as their own government. The case has also put the spotlight on the controversial origins of some priceless collections in American museums.
Deadly 1997 bombingOn Sept. 4, 1997, three bombs packed with nails, screws and glass ripped through a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, killing five people and injuring nearly 200 others. The militant Palestinian group Hamas claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings.
Eight Americans who were “severely and permanently injured” in the carnage filed two suits, Diana Campuzano v. the Islamic Republic of Iran et al, and Jenny Rubin et al. v. the Islamic Republic of Iran, et al. Their target was Iran because it is widely believed to fund Hamas.
Represented by Rhode Island attorney David J. Strachman, the victims sued the Iranian government and three top Iranian officials in federal court.
When none of the defendants appeared, the Americans won a default judgment in September 2003. Ruling that Hamas “has a close relationship with Iran,” and that the bombing “would not have occurred without Iranian sponsorship,” U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina ordered Iran to pay $423.5 million in damages to the eight plaintiffs.
Realizing it would be impossible to collect from the Iranian government, Strachman set his sights on Iranian antiquities, arguing that museums illegally removed historical artifacts from sites in Iran during the 1930s, making them a legitimate form of compensation for his clients.
Since then Strachman has been pursuing artifacts from several institutions, including the University of Chicago; the University of Michigan; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which has an ancient Near Eastern collection with artifacts from Iran, Iraq and other points in the Middle East; and the Detroit Institute of Arts, which has an Islamic art collection dating from the 1100's.
Despite the court victory, the plaintiffs still face another hurdle: the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which has provisions for excluding some foreign property from seizure. The federal government says museum collections fall into that category.
In 1996 Congress amended the law to permit suits against countries considered sponsors of terrorism, including Iran. The American hostages released by Iran after the 1979 hostage crisis sued and won a judgment in 2001.
But the Bush administration decided the suit violated the Algiers Accords, the January 1981 agreement that secured the hostages' release after 444 days in captivity, and under which the United States pledges “not to intervene directly or indirectly, politically or militarily in Iran's internal affairs.”
Old battle grinds on
A judge threw out the hostages’ lawsuit in 2002, and the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in 2004. The Washington Post reported recently that the hostages have not given up and are appealing to Congress for help.
But after more than a quarter century, their progress has been meager, in large part because of diplomatic and political exigencies, and their case could be instructive for the Hamas victims.
Making the government's case in the Hamas bombings, U.S. attorney, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, now special counsel in the CIA leak investigation, said that only the foreign property of another country that is used for "commercial purposes" can be seized for compensation and that museum artifacts don't fall into that category.
Strachman continues to maintain that many artifacts are really the property of the current Iranian government. “The [U.S.] government is making a specious argument,” he told MSNBC.com. “The State Department has consistently opposed efforts to compensate victims of terrorism, and has interfered in all these cases. ... What kind of message does that send to Iran? What does it say when our own government seems intent on hurting us?”
Strachman has had experience with such suits before. In July 2004 he won a $116 million judgment against the Palestine Liberation Organization in connection with the shooting deaths of an American couple in the West Bank in June 1996. He's still trying to collect on that judgment.
Museums keeping tabsMuseums are closely watching the antiquities lawsuits. Joseph Brennan, general counsel and vice president of Chicago's Field Museum, whose collection of Iranian antiquities may be targeted, rejected the idea that artifacts obtained in the last century are subject to current laws.
“If you can impose modern standards on acquisition methods of a hundred years ago, I'm going to be in the business of litigating permanently,” Brennan told the Chicago Tribune on March 13.
Since then, the museum has refused to comment, other than to commiserate with the victims. “We are very sympathetic,” Brennan said, “but we don’t think that this is what those laws are for.”