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Terrorist Victims Cannot Collect on Artifacts

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

After archaeologists discovered ancient clay tablets in the ruins of Persepolis in the 1930s, Iran loaned them to a Chicago museum where they are on display today.

The U.S. Supreme Court said they will stay there, too, notwithstanding a $71.5 million judgment against Iran. The judgment creditors wanted to seize the artifacts to collect on their judgment, but the justices declined.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the unanimous panel, said federal law "does not provide a freestanding basis for parties" to "attach and execute" against the property of a foreign state in Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran.

Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act

The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act provides broad immunity to foreign states. It says that foreign states are immune from any civil action in any court of the United States, with limited exceptions.

The plaintiffs, survivors or relatives of victims in a 1997 bombing, obtained their judgment against Iran by alleging the government supported terrorists in the attack. Iran refused to pay, so the creditors went after the museum artifacts.

Their lawyers argued that they should be able to attach the artifacts under an exception for countries that support terrorist groups. But the justices, except for Justice Elena Kagan, who recused herself, said the artifacts did not fit the exception.

The Persepolis Collection, kept at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago, consists of approximately 30,000 clay tablets. They have been on loan from Iran since 1937.

'Divest All Property'

The case turned on the words "property of a foreign state," in 28 U.S.C. Section 1680(g) of the Act. The petitioners argued that it meant all property, citing the court's decision in Bank Markazi v. Peterson.

"Beyond their citation to Bank Markazi, petitioners have not directed us to any evidence that supports their position that Section 1610(g) was intended to divest all property of a foreign state or its agencies or instrumentalities of immunity," the justices said.

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