Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Terrorist Targets, Tehran Try Tablet Tussle

The American Bar Association has posted a summary of a legal case currently making its way through the justice system, which presents many interesting aspects. In brief, here are the facts: Several Americans were among those injured in a series of terrorist bombings carried out by Hamas in 1997. They took Iran, as one of the backers of Hamas, to federal court. The Iranians didn't show up. Upon presenting their evidence for Iranian support for Hamas, the court ruled in their favor. They were awarded $423 million and change, $300 million of which were punitive damages. That's where things get interesting.

Given that Iran didn't even bother to send anyone to present its case, it's no surprise that they have no intention of paying the award. Collecting is a bit difficult when the United States doesn't even have diplomatic relations with the other country. In theory, the plaintiffs can petition the court to seize Iranian assets in the U.S., but there are precious little of those left. Most of what remains, such as the old Iranian embassy, is immune from seizure by international law.

But the plaintiffs have found some objects in the U.S. that may be accessible. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (which has a very nice museum, by the way, I recommend a visit) has possession of 15,000 clay tablets recovered in 1923 from the ancient Persian capital at Persepolis, in Iran. The tablets were taken to the U.S. for conservation and study, but with the intention of eventually returning them to Iran. A number of the tablets have already been returned in past years. The plaintiffs are now trying to gain possession of these artifacts. The University of Chicago has argued in court that the tablets are immune from seizure under the Foreign Sovereignty Immunity Act. The plaintiffs, on their part, claim the tablets fall under an exemption in the FSIA regarding property "used for a commercial activity." They argued that the Oriental Institute has used the tablets in commercial activities (I don't have the details, but presumably the argument is that by publicizing the tablets, the Institute has benefitted financially from them).

The district court found against the Institute, saying that only Iran itself could assert sovereign immunity. At that point, Iran finally showed up in court. The district court recently rejected their motion for summary judgment, so now we're waiting for the plaintiffs to prepare their case that the tablets have been used in commercial activity.

The possible effects of a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs are wide-ranging. The tablets would presumably be sold off on the open market, breaking up the collection and limiting scholarly access to them. Furthermore, the plaintiffs have already targeted other tablet collections, and presumably other kinds of artwork held by public institutions, might be targeted particularly items on long-term loan. Exchanges of art or other objects between the U.S. and other countries may become more difficult if those countries come to worry that they may lose possession of those objects due to actions by U.S. courts. This is something to keep an eye on.

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