U.S. Supreme Court justices have expressed skepticism over a lawsuit that seeks the seizure of ancient Persian museum relics to pay for a $71.5 million U.S. court judgment against Iran for its alleged role in a suicide bombing.
The Supreme Court on December 4 heard oral arguments in the case brought by several U.S. citizens injured in the 1997 attack by members of the Islamist militant group Hamas in Jerusalem.
While a U.S. district court agreed with the victims that Iran had provided support to Hamas and awarded them $71.5 million in damage payments, a U.S. appeals court last year sided with Iran in ruling that its antiquities cannot be seized to make payment.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on when a foreign state's assets may be seized under U.S. law to pay for damages awarded by U.S. courts to victims of militant attacks. A decision in the case is expected by the end of June.
Iran is one of several countries ordered by U.S. courts to pay damages in cases brought by the victims of terrorist attacks. U.S. court orders against sovereign foreign governments have proved difficult to enforce under U.S. and international law.
Under U.S. law, foreign governments are largely shielded from liability and their noncommercial assets are protected from seizure by U.S. courts unless the countries are designated by the U.S. government as state sponsors of terrorism.
Iran has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism. But Tehran has routinely dismissed claims by U.S. victims of militant attacks and refused to pay them.
The plaintiffs in the case before the Supreme Court want to seize ancient Persian artifacts held at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, which have been on loan from Iran since 1937, as well as relics held by Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.
The university's artifacts include about 30,000 clay tablets and fragments boasting some of the oldest writing known to exist.
Several Supreme Court justices at the December 4 hearing questioned whether cultural property like the artifacts may be seized.
The attorney for the 1997 bombing victims, Asher Perlin, sought to assure the justices that allowing seizure of the Chicago artifacts would not trigger what he called "a mad rush to grab antiquities" by victims in other lawsuits.
Perlin said his clients had no choice but to target the relics because Iran refuses to pay U.S. court judgments.
The Iranians "don't care what the American courts say," he said.
The long-running lawsuit arose from an attack in which three members of Hamas blew themselves up at a crowded pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, killing five people.
Eight injured U.S. citizens, including lead plaintiff Jenny Rubin, and their relatives sued Iran in a U.S. district court alleging it had provided training and support for the Hamas suicide bombers. The court agreed, awarding them $71.5 million, which they then sought to collect.
U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has sided with Iran and the university, warning that litigation against foreign states in the United States can lead to reciprocal treatment of the United States in foreign courts.
On December 4, Justice Department attorney Zachary Tripp told the justices that if the U.S. Congress wanted to allow property of "cultural and historic significance" to be seized, it would have explicitly said so in the U.S. law, but it did not.