In a Lawsuit Aimed at Iran, Terror Victims Focus on Ancient Artifacts in a Chicago Museum
Date: 18 Jul 2006 | | Views: 5278
That a victim of a Palestinian suicide bombing would seek legal redress from an American museum might seem baffling to the uninitiated. But for Daniel Miller, 27, it is simply a way of extracting justice from a government that he blames for his suffering.
Because Iran helped to train and support members of Hamas, the militant group that carried out the attack along a Jerusalem shopping promenade in 1997, Mr. Miller and four other Americans who survived the attack decided to seek damages from the Iranian government in American courts.
In 2001 they won a judgment against Iran in federal court in Chicago; in 2003 a United States District judge in Washington awarded them about $71 million in compensatory damages and $180 million in punitive damages, to be paid by the Iranian government, according to the plaintiffs lawyer.
To collect on the judgment, the plaintiffs seized upon an unusual strategy shortly afterward: laying claim to some 2,500-year-old cuneiform tablets that are on loan from Iran to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. The survivors are demanding that the university sell the tablets, unearthed by American archaeologists at the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis in the 1930's, and compensate them with the proceeds.
Last week the Iranian government finally took notice, dispatching a Washington lawyer to District Court in Chicago to plead its case. In a hearing yesterday Iran was given until Aug. 21 to respond to the suit.
The University of Chicago has defended Iran's right to the artifacts, arguing that the Oriental Institute has an obligation to return them as promised.
Mr. Miller, a Florida resident who declined to name his hometown, says his goal is not to gain financially but to force Iran to pay for its role in supporting terrorism. No amount of money can compensate for mine or any other victim's pain, he said in an e-mail message.
After the bombing on the Ben Yehuda mall in 1997, Mr. Miller said, metal that lodged in his ankles and his left arm had to be surgically removed, permanently damaging his nerves. A rusty seven-inch nail in his right calf muscle makes it difficult for him to walk long distances without stopping to rest, he said, and glass in his left eye causes him continual discomfort.
Life takes on a whole new meaning from that day forward, he said.
The University of Chicago argues that the cuneiform tablets and fragments sought by the plaintiffs surviving administrative records of the Persian Empire from around 500 B.C. are far too valuable as sources of study to be put up for auction.
They detail the movement of people and goods around different parts of the empire, said Gil Stein, director of the university's Oriental Institute. It's the first time we have been able to see how the empire functioned. No other scientifically excavated archival source exists anywhere.
Although the institute has tremendous sympathy for the victims of the attack, he said, such cultural artifacts cannot be used to satisfy a commercial claim. They're items of scholarship, he said. We believe they should be outside the scope of this kind of proceeding.
In an unusual twist, the State Department and the Justice Department have supported the university, arguing that the artifacts should be exempt under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a 1976 law that sets the parameters for suing foreign nations for terrorism in American courts. They argue that seizing cultural artifacts belonging to Iran could damage American relations with other countries.
The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979, when Iranian students stormed the United States Embassy in Teheran and set off a 444-day hostage crisis.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit involving the artifacts five victims of the bombing and five relatives who say they suffered emotional damage have recently made some headway in their legal struggle. After the 2003 judgment awarding damages, the University of Chicago invoked sovereign immunity on Iran's behalf, a legal principle holding that governments, unlike ordinary citizens, cannot be sued. The survivors responded by filing a motion seeking to establish that no party other than Iran can assert Iran's sovereign immunity under the act.
On Dec. 15, a federal magistrate, Judge Martin C. Ashman of United States District Court in Illinois, issued a report and recommendation concluding that the university had no standing to fight Iran's battles, particularly if Iran chose not to appear in court.
The university appealed, but on June 22, United States District Judge Blanche M. Manning agreed with the original finding. Thomas G. Corcoran Jr., the Washington lawyer who took on Iran's case last week, said he was confident that Iran would retrieve its artifacts. I don't think Congress intended that 2,500-year-old antiquities should be collected upon, he said in an interview.
Government officials in Teheran say Iran will also work through diplomatic channels, starting with Unesco, to ensure the return of the tablets. We should first exhaust diplomatic ways, cultural correspondence, administrative and friendly ways to take all of the property back, Omid Ghanami, director of legal affairs at Iran's Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization, said last week.
David J. Strachman, the Rhode Island-based attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was pleased to see that Iran was responding now. It's a victory for democracy and for the rule of law that Iran is now going to recognize the jurisdiction of federal courts and that the U.S. justice system will hold it responsible for the sponsorship of terrorism, he said.
The case is being closely watched by American museums that also face legal claims for Persian antiquities by the victims of the 1997 bombing. But those museums contend that the artifacts being claimed belong to them, not Iran. A case against two University of Michigan museums and the Detroit Institute of Arts was dismissed in May without prejudice, meaning the plaintiffs can still refile their claims.
In May, Harvard University filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that artifacts in its art museums are not owned by Iran and that they are not being used for any commercial purpose that could subject them to attachment. In a statement, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which faces a similar claim, said it was groundless because the artifacts do not belong to Iran.
Patty Gerstenblith, a law professor at DePaul University who specializes in international law governing cultural property, said the artifacts should be protected from seizure. I don't think this property should be subject to attachment, to satisfying this kind of claim, she said. Scattering the collection, she added, would be very detrimental from the point of view of scholarship and knowledge.
The tablets were excavated in the 1930's by University of Chicago archaeologists at the ruins of Persepolis, on a plain near the modern city of Shiraz in south-central Iran. The Iranian government lent them to the university in 1937 so they could be translated and cataloged. Because the clay tablets were unbaked and fragile, many of them were recovered largely in fragments.
Professor Stein of the university estimated that 37,000 tablets had been returned to Iran after study between 1938 and 2004, and that about 5,000 tablets and 10,000 fragments remain at the institute. A federal court ruling prohibits the university from returning any of those while the case is pending.
They belong to the people of Iran and they trusted us to translate them and take care of them, Professor Stein said. He compared the lawsuit to a scenario in which someone were to seize the Magna Carta and put it up for auction because they had a dispute with England.
But Mr. Miller, the bombing victim, emphasized that Iran need not forfeit its artifacts.
All Iran has to do is pay the judgment to prevent our action against their antiquities, he said.
By ROBIN POGREBIN, nytimes.com