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US Supreme Court prohibits seizure of Persian artefacts

US Supreme Court unanimously rules that victims of 1997 bombing in Jerusalem cannot seize Persian artefacts as payment
Decision confirmed earlier court ruling that 2,500-year-old clay tablets on long-term loan to the University of Chicago could not be seized (Reuters)

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that Americans injured in a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem cannot seize ancient Persian artefacts from a Chicago museum to satisfy a $71.5m court judgment against Iran, which they had accused of complicity in the attack.

The justices, in an 8-0 ruling, upheld a lower court's decision in favour of Iran that had prevented the plaintiffs from collecting on the judgment, which Tehran has not paid, by obtaining antiquities held at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

The decision confirmed an earlier appeals court ruling that the thousands of 2,500-year-old clay tablets on long-term loan to the University of Chicago could not be seized, because Iran was not using them for commercial purposes.

The plaintiffs had successfully sued Iran for $71.5m in a US federal court, but the Islamic Republic has few assets frozen in the United States, so the Americans had turned to the tablets from the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis as a potential source of compensation.

Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision.

The decision may make it harder for plaintiffs in other cases arising from militant attacks overseas to seek compensation by seizing and selling off cultural relics owned by foreign countries.

The case required the Supreme Court to determine what types of assets are immune from seizure under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. That 1976 federal law largely shields foreign governments from liability in American courts, except for countries like Iran that have been designated by the US government as state sponsors of terrorism.

The lawsuit stems from a 1997 attack in which three members of Hamas blew themselves up at a crowded pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, killing five people.

Several of the injured, including lead plaintiff Jenny Rubin, and their relatives sued Iran in federal court alleging it had provided material support for the attackers.

University of Chicago spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said the ruling "reaffirms the university's continuing efforts to preserve and protect this cultural heritage".

Asher Perlin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the Supreme Court missed an opportunity to "hold Iran's feet to the fire".

"This was a difficult loss for my clients, who have been waiting for justice for more than 20 years since the Iran-sponsored terrorist attack that shattered their lives," Perlin said.

In 2016, the Chicago-based 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the artefacts from being turned over to the plaintiffs.

The appeals court also said that a 2008 change to the immunity law did not create a standalone right for victims of militant attacks to collect on judgments regardless of commercial activity or other exemptions. The Supreme Court agreed.

In the unanimous ruling, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the change "does not in itself divest property of immunity". She also said the plaintiffs had shown no evidence that the US Congress intended to remove all obstacles to enforcing terrorism-related court judgments.

Wednesday's ruling may affect the outcome of another dispute pending before the justices in which four different groups of plaintiffs representing those injured in other allegedly Iran-backed attacks are seeking to enforce court judgments by seizing $17.6m in assets held by Iranian government-owned Bank Melli.

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