Victims of terrorist act seek Iranian artifacts

By Hassan S. Ali

Victims of a 1997 terrorist bombing in Israel have sued the University of Chicago as part of a $71 million judgment against the Iranian government, which they claim sponsored the attack. In the lawsuit, five of the 200 people injured in the blast have demanded the University turn over historic Iranian artifacts housed at the Oriental Institute as restitution for their suffering.

The University joins the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Detroit Institute of Arts, University of Michigan, and Harvard University as institutions that the victims claim “participated in expeditions to Iran in the 1930s” and which returned with what one victim asserts “might be the property of Iran,” according to reports by the Detroit News.

Rhode Island lawyer David J. Strachman has taken on the cases of numerous victims of international terrorism in recent years, including the most recent litigation against the University. Strachman made international headlines last year after representing the family of victims killed in a 1996 terrorist attack in Israel. As a result of Strachman’s landmark suit against Hamas, a federal judge awarded $116 million in damages to the victims’ orphaned children, allowing the family to pursue the seizing of Hamas assets in the U.S.

The former Legal Counsel to the Rhode Island House Republican Leader, Strachman has described his clients’ motivations in a larger scheme of the fight against terrorism. “The case is about inflicting economic damage and punishment on the terrorists,” Strachman said following last year’s ruling against Hamas. “What it means is that private individuals can utilize the legal system to join the international fight against terrorism.”

Strachman’s case against the University and other major institutions revolves around a September 1997 Hamas terrorist bombing in Jerusalem that killed five people near a shopping center. Out of the approximately 200 people injured in the blast, five Americans decided to sue Iran on grounds that the government sponsored the attack, according to a Detroit News report on the case. After winning his clients a $71.5 million judgment against Iran, Strachman argued that institutions such as the University of Chicago illegally removed historical relics and artifacts from archaeological sites in Iran during the 1930s, rendering those items the property of the current Iranian government, according to the Detroit News.

“We’re sympathetic with the victims of the terrorists,” said Beth Harris, vice president and general counsel for the University, in an official statement. “But the law does not allow recovery under these circumstances,” she said.

Lawyers for the University appeared in Federal District Court just prior to the Christmas holidays, where a magistrate judge issued an opinion regarding the plaintiffs of the case. “The judge granted their motion, and the University has filed an appeal to the District Court Judge,” said a lawyer at the University’s Office of Legal Counsel, who preferred to remain anonymous.

The University lawyers’ plan of attack has dissected the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), a Congressional order imposing limitations on how lawsuits against foreign sovereign nations are conducted. “The case has to do with whether the U of C had standing to assert defenses under the FSIA, anybody other than Iran can advance defenses under the FSIA,” according to the University lawyer. “It’s all very complicated and technical in legal terms,” he said.

On the plaintiffs’ end, Strachman and his clients have done their own share of legal maneuvering in pursuing their case. Citing 1991 Congressional legislation that permitted lawsuits against terrorist organizations overseas—a law that 10 years later backed the cases of two September 11 victims’ families who sued Afghanistan, al Qaeda, Iraq, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein—Strachman’s suit “was only the second time that a U.S. judge has awarded damages to the victims of non-government sponsors of foreign terrorism,” according to The Boston Globe.

In an April 2004 University press release, officials from the Oriental Institute described the beginnings of a renewed relationship with their Iranian colleagues. “I see returning these tablets as part of a partnership,” said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute. “As we complete our work on other tablets, we intend to return them also.” Stein added that returning the historical relics was part of a “broadening of contacts between scholars in the two countries.” University officials would not say whether the April 2004 decision had any connection to the litigation.

The spring 2004 decision marked the first time that artifacts were returned since being loaned by Iran following its 1979 revolution.

With a status conference “most likely” scheduled for early spring before a District Court judge hears their appeal, University lawyers have been hard at work preparing for the next phase in their legal battle. Citing the District Court’s higher authority, the legal team hopes to see last month’s opinion overturned.

Looking further ahead, University lawyers maintain their optimism and commitment towards keeping the University’s prized possessions “at home” in Chicago. “If doesn’t work, we’ll go to the U.S. Court of Appeals.”