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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Judge Swaps Vote on Iran Bank to Save Relics

(CN) - Months after ruling against Iran's central bank, a Ninth Circuit judge flipped his vote to bemoan the "unjustified and unfortunate" possibility that his colleagues' decision could help justify to the seizure of Persian antiquities.

Since 2002, Iran's Bank Melli has faced down a spate of lawsuits for its financial ties to militant groups that killed innocent civilians in Israel.

Stacking up billions in liabilities, Iran accrued $12.9 million in damages for a Hamas-sponsored cafeteria bombing at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, $350 million for a 1990 mass shooting, and $590 million for the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

A Chicago Federal Court also slapped Iran with a $423.5 million default judgment for failing to show up to Jenny Rubin, et al vs. the Islamic Republic of Iran, a case stemming from a suicide bombing in Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda mall in 1997.

Families of the victims in that case have tried to collect their judgment by seizing 2,500-year-old clay artifacts known as the Persepolis tablets from the University of Chicago.

The relics survived Alexander the Great's burning of the Persian capital in B.C. 329-330, only to become the focus of a legal conflagration one decade ago, according to the Oriental Institute's director Gil Stein.

In 2006, a federal judge rejected one of the University of Chicago's defenses against the seizure of the relics in its museums collection.

Hoping to simmer down a possible international incident, the U.S. government took the university's side at every turn, and the institution succeeded in preventing the attempted attachment on other grounds in 2011.

The Rubin families hope to reverse that ruling in an appeal currently pending before the Seventh Circuit, and they may have found help in another appellate court last summer.

On Aug. 26, 2015, the Ninth Circuit affirmed an unrelated $17.6 million judgment, and this ruling swatted away what it ridiculed as Iran's "creative arguments" to avoid liability.

Most of these arguments involved exemptions the republic invoked in the Foreign Sovereigns Immunity Act.

Parsing two amendments of this statute, the Ninth Circuit unanimously found that one of the statutes subclauses provided a freestanding exemption favoring the creditors.

In the wake of that decision, one of the co-plaintiffs in the Rubin case cited that finding to argue that precedent weighed in their favor.

Reconsidering that effect, Senior District Judge Dee Benson, who sat by designation from the District of Utah, changed his mind on that question on Monday.

"Surely this court's holding will be argued as precedent to allow the Rubin plaintiffs to seize Persian artifacts to be auctioned off to satisfy the Rubin plaintiffs' default judgments," Benson wrote. "This would be an unjustified and unfortunate result."

While legislators wanted to make it easier for families to collect Iranian judgments, Benson said, "Congress did not, however, intend to open the floodgates and allow terrorism plaintiffs to attach any and all Iranian property in the United States."

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