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Persian Artifacts Can't Be Seized for Judgment Against Iran

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on April 14, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In 1997, Hamas orchestrated a triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem that wounded 200 and killed five people. U.S. citizens who were wounded, suffered emotional distress, or lack of consortium sued Iran in federal court arguing that Iran was responsible for the bombings because Iran provided support and training to Hamas.

The plaintiffs were successful and won a $71.5 million judgment against Iran -- though in hindsight, that may have been the easiest part of this litigation.

The Persian Artifact Collections

The plaintiffs are trying to collect judgment by seizing Persian artifacts located at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and the Field Museum of Natural History. Iran, and the museums, challenged the plaintiffs' attempt at attaching the assets.

Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act

The plaintiffs first tried to attach the assets under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act's commercial activity exception, arguing that the museums are the agents of Iran. The district court disagreed, finding the relationship between Iran and the museums more like a bailment relationship. Because the museums were not the agents of Iran, and Iran did not exert control over them, plaintiffs could not rely on FSIA to attach the artifacts.

National Defense Authorization Act

Next, plaintiffs argued that the National Defense Authorization Act ("NDAA") provided that assets of a terror states could be attached, whether they are blocked assets or not. Again, the district court disagreed, finding that such a reading ignored statutory intent and was "inconsistent with that cannon [sic] of statutory interpretation."

Terrorism Risk Insurance Act

Finally, plaintiffs argued that the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act permits attachment because Iran is a "terrorist party" and the Persian artifacts are blocked. To be considered blocked, the provenance of the artifacts must be contested. However, the artifacts in question here were not of disputed provenance, so the TRIA did not apply.

Though the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, "recognize[d] the tragic circumstances that gave rise to the instant action," it found that the "law cited by plaintiffs does not offer the remedy they seek."

The plaintiffs may have won in principle, but it doesn't look like these plaintiffs can collect -- at least, not yet. The museum's attorneys say it is likely the plaintiffs will appeal to the Seventh Circuit, reports the Tehran Times.

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