Iranian Americans and the museum community concerned about the possible seizure of precious Iranian artifacts won an important reprieve in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals today.
The decision addresses a court case in which plaintiffs are attempting to confiscate ancient Persian artifacts from the University of Chicago and the Chicago Field Museum to collect damages against Iran’s current government. The artifacts, ancient tablets from Persepolis, will be auctioned to the highest bidder if the plaintiffs win the case.
The appeals court reversed a lower court decision that refused to consider if the artifacts were immune from seizure under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). That law states that items used by foreign governments for non-commercial purposes are protected from lawsuits, but Iran’s government initially refused to assert sovereign immunity.
The higher court’s decision found that the sovereign immunity exemption of the FSIA must be considered for the items, sending the matter back to the lower court to determine whether the antiquities qualify as non-commercial.
The artifacts still remain in jeopardy even if the court decides they are non-commercial due to potential loopholes in a separate law, the 2002 Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. NIAC has called for the law to be amended to resolve ambiguities that put cultural items at risk.
“The Persepolis tablets and the cultural heritage of Iran belong to the Iranian people, not the Iranian government,” said NIAC President Trita Parsi. “Justice isn’t served by targeting the heritage and history of a people.”
In addition to Persian artifacts in Chicago, collections are also being targeted in separate cases against Harvard University and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
It will likely be years before the courts make a final decision determining if the Persian antiquities will be auctioned away. And despite today’s ruling, the ultimate outcome of the cases remains far from assured. The only way to be certain that the Persian artifacts - as well as other antiquities across the country - will be protected is to change the law to make cultural items explicitly exempt from attempts to collect damages against foreign governments.
NIAC has led the efforts of the Iranian-American community to protect the Persian artifacts and supports amending the law to protect cultural property like the Persepolis tablets.
“This ruling is a positive step, but it does not resolve the issue,” said Jamal Abdi, NIAC's Policy Director. “The only way to ensure that no one’s culture or heritage will ever come under attack again is to close the legal loopholes that have put these items in jeopardy.”
NIAC has strongly supported an amendment to the law that has been proposed in Congress but has yet to move forward. The amendment clarifies that all cultural items held by universities, museums, and libraries cannot be subject to seizure as part of a judgment against a foreign country. NIAC has also called directly for the White House to intervene to protect the Persepolis tablets, and has submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Iranian-American community to the court to ensure the community's heritage is protected.
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