It is a case that has victims of a terrorist bombing seeking restitution from a U.S. museum, and the U.S. State Department and the government of Iran on the same side. Jeff Swicord reports on an unusual legal case pending before Federal Court in Chicago.
Twenty-five hundred-year-old archeological artifacts from a dig at the ancient Persian city of Persepolis in modern day Iran. For 70 years they have been on loan to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. Here, linguists have been working to translate the text inscribed on them written in an obscure ancient language.
Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, says the artifacts are an important piece of Persian society. "They have proved to be one of the most valuable ways for understanding how the Persian Empire actually worked. It is the only archive surviving from that time."
The tablets have become embroiled in an unusual legal case that pits cultural heritage against victim's rights. Under a recent U.S. terrorism statute, victims of a 1997 Hamas bombing in Jerusalem won a judgment against the government of Iran, a known supporter of Hamas.
The law allows U.S. citizens victimized by terrorism to seize the assets of governments who are found to have lent material or financial support. Victims of the Jerusalem bombing have targeted the priceless tablets as partial restitution. And museums and universities around the world are deeply concerned.
Patrick Clawson is Deputy Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He testified for the plaintiffs in the Jerusalem bombing case. He says confiscating items of cultural heritage from another country may not be good public policy, but it is the law. "I'm sure that they find it outrageous that something they have controlled for 70 years suddenly might be taken away from them.
"No one is proposing to smash them, the question is who is going to own them? No one is proposing to take them away from public display, no one is proposing to put them in a kiln and burn them, the question is: who is going to own them?"
Lawyers for the plaintiffs say Iran need not forfeit its tablets; all it has to do is pay the judgment.
According to Patrick Clawson the case would not have gotten this far if the Iranian government had taken the steps to defend itself in court. The government of Iran has $6 billion in judgments pending against it in U.S. courts -- more than any other country in the world. And as a general policy it has refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
"In general, foreign governments have great immunity in the U.S. court. Great immunity in the U.S. courts (against suits) brought by individuals. And it would not in fact surprise me that when Iran shows up in a U.S. courtroom that it can indeed assert those immunities from lawsuits, and protect these assets."
In a recent twist, the government of Iran plans to do just that. The Iranians have hired a Washington law firm to represent them in Federal Court in Chicago.
Museum directors around the world like Gil Stein are confident the priceless collection will be kept intact. "These are things that must be protected. That's our responsibility to future generations. Two hundred years from now people are not going to remember the details of a particular political struggle. But they will remember if these items are passed on."