A lawsuit filed against the Oriental Institute took a new twist this summer when the Iranian government joined the University in an attempt to prevent the forced sale of some of the museum’s ancient artifacts.
The federal lawsuit involves victims of a 1997 suicide bombing at a shopping mall in Jerusalem. Although Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, a group of American victims sued the Iranian government in U.S. courts, claiming the government provided support and training for the militant group.
The victims won their lawsuit and damages of $251 million in 2003, but Iran refused to pay the judgment.
The victims instead turned to the Oriental Institute for compensation. Since many of the museum’s holdings are the legal property of Iran, they demanded the University sell some of these artifacts to fulfill the Iranian government’s financial obligation.
The University disputed the victims’ claim and invoked Iran’s immunity under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), a law that limits suits against foreign governments. In June, however, a federal judge dismissed the University’s argument, ruling that only Iran itself could make such a claim.
In July, Iran joined the legal battle, and the government’s=- lawyers were ordered to respond to the lawsuit by August 21.
The judge struck down the August brief filed by Iran, said David Strachman, attorney for the victims. He said the court criticized Iran for providing few original claims to support its case, but gave the government until September 19 to file another brief.
“They wrote a few pages on their own and basically said, ‘We’ll adopt the arguments in the University’s brief,’” Strachman said.
The case involves artifacts from five collections at the Oriental Institute. They include thousands of clay tablets and fragments used for record keeping in the ancient Persian Empire that were originally excavated by researchers in the 1930s.
Iran owns these artifacts but officially loaned them to the Oriental Institute in 1937 for research. The University has returned over 37,000 pieces to date, according to Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute.
Despite Iran’s recent entrance, the University remains closely involved with the case. Stein said the museum is committed to preventing the sale of these artifacts.
“The Oriental Institute will do everything in its power to protect cultural patrimony and the character of the tablets as an irreplaceable scholarly data set,” he said in a written statement.
The University notes Iran’s ownership of these ancient tablets and plans to return them once research has been completed. However, it disputes the claim that the relics can serve as payment to bombing victims.
“[W]e do not believe that the law allows for the seizure of cultural heritage as compensation,” Stein said. “These types of materials fall within a special protected category and are not subject to seizure.”
The Oriental Institute’s position has won the backing of the U.S. State Department and Justice Department. They claim the artifacts are protected under FSIA, and that their seizure would harm America internationally.
Strachman, the victims’ attorney, contends that the other two branches of government have supported his case.
“Courts have been critical of the [U.S.] government’s position,” and members of Congress have encouraged this type of litigation, he said.
He also questioned the appropriateness of the University’s relationship with the government of Iran.
“I find it shocking that such a fine University would take the side of a rogue state…that takes the lives of American citizens,” he said. “The University wants to protect its snuggly position with Iran.”
Oriental Institute officials said they aim to protect the research community, as well as the understanding of human history. Only a select group of scholars can analyze the fragile artifacts, which are particularly susceptible to irreparable damage, according to museum officials.
“They are the only archive of their kind in the world. It is our responsibility as both scientists and as responsible citizens to protect them for future generations,” Stein said.
Strachman denies the threat the case poses to the academic community, noting that potential buyers are all research institutions also concerned with preserving these artifacts. He said Iran has been accused of “cultural genocide” and some are worried about “Taliban-style” destruction of non-Islamic culture.
Though the case has been in court for three years, it is unlikely to be resolved in the near future, with the Iranian government predicting up to 24 more years of litigation.
Nevertheless, both sides remain confident and reject the idea of a compromise.
“My clients are very deserving,” Strachman said. “We intend to pursue this case to the end.”