(CN) – American museums do not have to part with Iranian antiquities salvaged from the famous ruined city of Persepolis to satisfy a $423.5 million judgment for victims of a 1997 Hamas terrorist attack at the Ben Yehuda mall in Jerusalem, a federal judge ruled.
After obtaining the default judgment against Iran in 2003, the nine American plaintiffs moved to attach satisfy the debt by seizing Iranian antiquities currently in the possession of the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard University, claiming that the museums were acting as trustees for the Iranian government’s property.
The creditors supported their claim by citing the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA) of 2002, which provides that the “blocked assets of that terrorist party” are subject to execution or attachment to satisfy such judgment.
But the museums responded that the antiquities do not belong to Iran and moved to dissolve the attachments.
U.S. District Judge George O’Toole Jr. agreed with the museums, noting that the burden of proof lies with the creditor to show that the goods in the possession of a trustee are actually the debtor’s possessions.
“There is no reason, textual or otherwise, to conclude that TRIA shifts this burden of proof away from the plaintiff,” O’Toole wrote.
“Despite extensive discovery, the plaintiffs are unable to sustain their burden of showing that any particular item held by the museums is the property of Iran subject to execution by means of trustee process,” he added. “It is not enough simply to show that antiquities held by the museums originated from sites within Iran.”
The Americans holding the judgment also cannot base their claims on a 1930 law that “does not on its face purport to vest ownership of excavated antiquities in the government. Moreover, the 1930 law clearly contemplates that antiquities may be owned by private persons.”
The plaintiffs also failed to persuade O’Toole “that items taken from the ruins of the ancient city of Persepolis cannot be privately owned.”
“The plaintiffs point to texts suggesting that foreign excavators unlawfully took items from Persepolis,” he wrote. “Even if that is true as an historical matter, it does not get the plaintiffs where they need to go.”
“Establishing that a particular item was unlawfully exported or removed from Iran is not equivalent to showing that it now should be regarded as property of Iran subject to levy and execution,” the Sept. 15 decision states.
O’Toole concluded that Iran itself has made no claim to the ownership of the antiquities in question.