November 16, 2011

US court rejects Iranian antiquities seizure

Posted at 2:11 pm in Similar cases

More coverage of the US Appeal Court verdict on the seizure of Iranian Artefacts from two Chicago Museums.

Tehran Times

Wednesday, April 6, 2011
U.S. court rejects seizure of Iranian antiquities
Tehran Times Culture Desk

TEHRAN — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has rejected confiscation of Iran’s 300 Achaemenid clay tablets loaned to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute in a session on March 29.

In the ruling, the Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s order that might have handed the artifacts over to several victims of a 1997 terrorist bombing in Israel, the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS) reported last week.

Those victims won a $90-million judgment in 2003 against the government of Iran, which is claimed to have allegedly financed and trained the Arab terrorists who carried out the bombing in Israel.

But the victims and their families have struggled to collect any of that judgment from Iran, and their lawyers have sought instead to seize purported Iranian assets in the United States, including antiquities held in American museums.

Those legal efforts have been condemned by some scholars as a dangerous politicization of the world’s archaeological heritage.

In the ruling, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court ruled that the lower court had misinterpreted the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which generally protects the property of foreign governments in the United States.

The plaintiffs have asserted that the antiquities in Chicago are exempt from that immunity because of a provision in the 1976 law that excludes property “used for a commercial activity.”

The lower court had ruled that the plaintiff’s argument on that point must win by default because Iran had not come forward to assert its immunity under the 1976 law.

But the Seventh Circuit, like other appellate courts in similar recent cases, ruled that the 1976 law requires courts to decide for themselves which foreign immunities apply in each case, whether or not a foreign government has explicitly demanded those immunities. (Complicating the case, Iran did eventually come forward to assert its immunity.)

The case will now be returned to the lower court for further argument.

The Oriental Institute holds 8,000 to 10,000 intact and about 11,000 fragmented tablets, as estimated by Gil Stein, the director of the university’s Oriental Institute.

The tablets, which also known as the Persepolis fortification tablets, were discovered by University of Chicago archaeologists in 1933 while they were excavating in Persepolis, the site of a major Oriental Institute excavation.

The artifacts bear cuneiform script explaining administrative details of the Achaemenid Empire from about 500 BC during the reigns of Darius the Great, Xerxes and Artaxerxes I.

They are among a group of tens of thousands of tablets and tablet fragments that were loaned to the university’s Oriental Institute in 1937 for study.

A group of 179 complete tablets was returned in 1948, and another group of more than 37,000 tablet fragments was returned in 1951.

“The Persepolis texts…resonate for Iranians at a very profound level. These are items of cultural heritage as important as the crown jewels of England, or the original document of the Magna Carta, or the Western Wall in Jerusalem, or the Parthenon in Athens,” Stein commented on the importance of these historical documents for Iran in a written statement in 2007.

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