The Chronicle of Higher Education
March 29, 2011
Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute won a victory on Tuesday in their efforts to maintain possession of thousands of ancient Iranian artifacts. In a ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a lower court's order that might have handed the artifacts over to several American victims of a 1997 terrorist bombing in Jerusalem.
Those victims won a $90-million judgment in 2003 against the government of Iran, which is believed to have financed and trained the terrorists who carried out the Jerusalem bombing. 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 Tuesday's ruling, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit 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 to 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.) ...
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