Wednesday, September 27, 2023
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Russia Sanctioned for Sitting on Sacred Texts

WASHINGTON (CN) - Ignoring advice from the U.S. government, a federal judge has ordered Russia to pay $50,000 each day it holds onto writings left behind by Chasidic Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

Leaders of the Chasidim movement allegedly left the archive of 25,000 handwritten pages behind in 1939 Poland as they fled to America. Soviet troops caught hold of the archive after they defeated the German army, and the materials have remained in Russian control ever since.

Agudas Chasidei Chabad, a New York-based nonprofit, sued to retrieve the documents on behalf of Jewish religious communities whose origins lie in Eastern Europe and Russia.

It won a default judgment in 2010 that orders the Russian Federation and the Russian Ministry of Culture and Mass Communication to surrender the historical records, which include Chasidim books and manuscripts allegedly seized after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Agudas Chasidei Chabad says the Soviet government had determined to return the sacred artifacts in the 1990s, but the Russian Federation nullified the order when it took power following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Despite the court order, Russia has again refused to turn over the artifacts. It said the court lacks authority under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) "to adjudicate rights in property that in most cases always has been located in the Russian Federation."

After negotiations failed, Chabad moved for civil contempt sanctions against Russia, its ministry of culture and mass communication, the Russian State Library, and the Russian State Military Archive.

Chief U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth solicited the views of the United States on the matter, and noted that the government objected to the sanctions on two grounds.

It advised that FSIA bars civil contempt sanctions to enforce judgments issued against foreign states, and that the sanctions could cripple national interest, diplomatic settlement efforts, and the already tense relationship with the Kremlin.

Lamberth said Wednesday that he "rejects both arguments."

Quoting a recent D.C. Circuit decision on the issue, Lamberth said there is "not a smidgen of indication in the text [or legislative history] of the FSIA that Congress intended to limit a federal court's inherent contempt power." (Brackets in original.)

Indeed "the FSIA does not permit a court to enforce a contempt sanction," but at issue is the court's right issue such orders, according to the ruling.

As to sensitive diplomatic considerations, precedent dictates that courts "only defer to these views if reasonably and specifically explained," Lamberth said.

"The United States fails to meet this standard," he added. "Defendants have steadily resisted all legal and diplomatic efforts to compel them to return the collection for at least two decades."

There is also no indication of any future plans that the United States has to resolve the case, nor is there "any other reason to believe that its new efforts will be more likely to succeed than past failures," Lamberth wrote.

The Russians have made it explicitly "clear that they have no intention of complying with the court's prior order," he added.

Their actions clearly meet the legal standard necessary to "warrant the entry of civil contempt sanctions," which require that "the putative contemnor has violated an order that is clear and unambiguous," and that the violation has been "proved by clear and convincing evidence," according to the ruling.

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