Four years ago, when a group of Americans who had been injured in a terrorist bombing filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Islamic Republic of Iran for its role in the attack, the nation failed to show up for the trial.
After being found liable for $71.5 million in compensatory damages, Iran failed to pay.
So in an effort to procure some of the millions owed to them by Iran, the victims filed suit against a new target: Harvard University.
The plaintiffs are attempting to take custody of a number of antiquities held in the University’s museums, which they claim were excavated from Iran and may be that nation’s property, but Harvard asserts that none of its collection is owned by Iran.
Both sides have issued a flurry of court filings since the suit was filed in U.S. District Court for Massachusetts on March 28, and now await a judge’s ruling. Though courts have awarded plaintiffs billions of dollars in judgments under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), a 1976 law that allows citizens to sue foreign nations in U.S. courts for acts of terror, few nations actually pay the damages.
The plaintiffs’ legal maneuver—focusing on a university—is an unprecedented compensatory strategy that could be consequential for museums and universities across the U.S.
LAYING DOWN THE LAW
The plaintiffs are a group of nine U.S. citizens. Five—including Jenny Rubin, for whom the suit is named—were injured in a September 4, 1997 triple suicide bombing at a crowded pedestrian mall in Jerusalem. The other four are family members who said they suffered emotional harm. The plaintiff’s 2001 suit accused Iran of providing training and support for the terrorist group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the bombing.
Four years later, in the suit filed against Harvard, the plaintiffs claim that a number of the University museum’s antiquities obtained in archaeological expeditions in Iran in the 1930s “may be the property of Iran.”
The suit lays claim to “all objects...that are the property of the Islamic Republic of Iran” held in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, the Fogg Art Museum, the Semitic Museum, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
The plaintiffs’ only specifically identify a set of six limestone relief fragments from the site of Persepolis in southwestern Iran, on display on the third floor of the Sackler.
In court filings, Harvard’s lawyers contend that none of the antiquities in its collections— including the six fragments in the Sackler, which were a gift from Grenville L. Winthrop, Class of 1886—are owned by Iran.
Harvard also claims that even if its museums held antiquities owned by Iran, the items could not be seized under the FSIA because Iran is not using those items commercially.
After a series of back and forth claims, “the motions are all ripe for decision by this Court,” Harvard’s lawyers wrote in court filings Friday.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, David J. Strachman of Providence, R.I., declined to comment on the litigation. University spokesman Joe Wrinn also declined to comment.
The plaintiffs are eyeing antiquities at other institutions, as well, including The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago.
The closest match to the plaintiffs’ tactics is a suit called Flatow v. Alvi Foundation, according to Keith Sealing, associate dean for student services at Syracuse University College of Law, who has written about the FSIA.
In that suit, a plaintiff unsuccessfully tried to collect on a $247.5 million default judgment against Iran from 1978 by attempting to seize the assets of a U.S. company with ties to Iran.
“Juries have been more than willing to award massive judgments to victims of terrorism and their families—$10,000 per day for kidnapping and torture victims, $5 million in solatium for surviving close relatives of those killed, and punitive damages awards of $300 million per wrongful death—but collecting any money at all has been very problematic,” Sealing wrote in an e-mail.
In the past, plaintiffs’ have attempted to claim foreign assets that have been frozen by the U.S. government as a source of payment under the FSIA, but debates rage about the appropriateness of distributing those funds.
“Since 9/11 the United States and other countries have frozen millions of dollars of assets of countries designated State Sponsors of Terrorism, but many would argue that these assets are better retained for diplomatic leverage than to pay [punitive damages] to a few plaintiffs,” Sealing wrote.
—Staff writer Nicholas M. Ciarelli can be reached at email@example.com.