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Victims of a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem won’t be able to go after an ancient clay tablet collection owned by Iran to satisfy a $71.5 million judgment against the country after a unanimous Supreme Court ruling Feb. 21.
Under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, the petitioners didn’t have free license to go after the property of a foreign nation to enforce a judgment against it, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the court.
The holding, which was widely expected by court watchers, makes it harder to go after the property of terrorist states. But going after such property could be the only way to curtail such nations’ rogue actions, some observers argue.
Foreign sovereign immunity is a matter of grace and comity, the court said. When Congress enacted the FSIA, it struck a “delicate balance” between respecting that immunity and holding foreign states accountable for their actions in certain situations, it said.
To rule that the statute gives the petitioners the ability to go after the ancient tablets to satisfy a judgment against a state sponsor of terrorism would be antithetical to Congress’s intent, the court said.
The attorney for the victims and victims’ families of the terrorist attack said he disagreed with the decision.
Congress has repeatedly expanded the remedies of American terrorism victims, Asher Perlin of Hollywood, Fla., and attorney for the petitioners, told Bloomberg Law Feb. 21. “Just last year, Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act in which Congress explicitly stated that terrorism victims are to be afforded the broadest possible relief against anyone, including foreign states that support terrorism,” he said.
A spokesperson for the University of Chicago, the caretakers of the tablets who argued against satisfying the judgment, said in a Feb. 21 statement that the tablets have “unique cultural and historical value.” The ruling reaffirms the University’s continuing efforts to preserve and protect the cultural heritage, the spokesperson said.
Here, Hamas carried out three suicide bombings in a pedestrian mall in Jerusalem in 1997, killing five people and injuring almost 200. The petitioners are U.S. victims and close relatives of those who were injured.
They sued Iran in a U.S.federal district court, alleging the country was responsible because it supplied material support and training to Hamas. Iran didn’t appear in court and the court awarded the petitioners $71.5 million in a default judgment.
The petitioners then sought to collect on the judgment, attempting to go after approximately 30,000 ancient clay tablets Iran loaned to the University of Chicago in 1937 for research.
Ultimately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the petitioners couldn’t take possession of the tablets. It held that §1610(g) of the FSIA, which the petitioners alleged strips the immunity of a foreign state’s property for terror victim judgments, merely identifies property that’s available to satisfy such a judgment, but doesn’t remove its immunity.
Affirming the Seventh Circuit, the Supreme Court noted that its holding is “consistent with the history and structure of the FSIA.”
Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
The case is Rubin v. Islamic Republic of Iran , U.S., No. 16-534, 2/21/18 .
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