CHICAGO (CN) – Holocaust victims can sue Hungarian State Railways (HSR) in an Illinois Court over the government’s alleged participation in the plunder of Jewish possessions and funds during the second World War, a federal court decided.
The plaintiffs, all survivors of Nazi crimes committed in Hungary during the war, sued the state railway for its “role in the looting and plundering of Jewish possessions.”
Other claims made in the case include the railway’s aiding and abetting genocide, violating customary international law, unlawful takings, and fraud and related crimes.
The railway, however, countered that an instrumentality of the Hungarian government, it has a range of defense pertinent to the case including sovereign immunity to forum non conveniens.
In allowing the plaintiffs’ case to proceed, U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan rejected the railway’s multiple assertions.
The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) “generally makes a foreign state (or an agency or instrumentality of a foreign state) ‘immune from the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States,'” noted the court, but makes certain exceptions for takings of property that violate international law.
The court found that the expropriations and looting alleged by the complaint are an example of such a taking, in spite of the fact that both the victims and the perpetrators were Hungarian.
“HSR argues that if a foreign sovereign deprives property from its own nationals that the taking does not violate international law. However, HSR has not shown that looting in the form of aiding and abetting genocide would not violate international law, regardless of whether the victims are nationals of the foreign sovereign responsible for the looting,” the court said.
In response to concerns that this suit will affect U.S.-Hungarian relations, the court acknowledged that “HSR argues that the United States government and Hungary have decided to resolve, on a state-to-state basis, Holocaust-related looting pursuant to the Treaty of Paris signed in 1947.”
However, the plaintiffs and Hungarian courts alike have found that Hungary has not complied with the treaty.
The court declined to consider at this early stage in the proceeding whether Hungary’s activities are outside the purview of the American legal system based on the “act of state” doctrine, which “requires American courts to presume the validity of an official act of a foreign sovereign performed within its own territory.”
Additionally, the railway argued “that this action should be dismissed based on the doctrine of forum non conveniens,” given that “the Hungarian courts provide an available and adequate alternative forum.”
The court flatly rejected this defense as well.
“The potential inconvenience to the corporate defendants in litigating here would be minimal compared to the potential inconvenience to plaintiffs if required to prosecute this action in the Hungarian courts,” said Judge Der-Yeghiayan.
“In addition, the record indicates that the pertinent evidence is dispersed, that many eyewitnesses are deceased, and that those who are living are dispersed.”
With no precedent forcing them to bring their suit elsewhere, the court said, the plaintiffs will be allowed to proceed in the Northern District of Illinois.
“There is a local interest factor in regard to protecting the rights of such plaintiffs in the United States and a strong U.S. interest in vindicating alleged international human rights violations such as genocide,” Judge Der-Yeghiayan concluded.