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In victory for museums, judge says relics can't be seized to pay $412 million Iran judgment

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FILE - In this Oct. 16, 2008 file photo, Matt Stolper, director of the Persepolis Fortification Archive at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, examines a tablet that is part of a collection that provide a top-to-bottom look at life in the Persian empire 2,500 years ago. On Friday, March 28, 2014, a federal judge in Chicago ruled that survivors of a 1997 terrorist attack blamed partly on Iran can't seize museum pieces in U.S. collections to help pay a $412 million judgment against Iran. The ruling stems from a long-running legal battle that museum officials elsewhere watching closely. They feared their own collections could be put at risk if the judge had allowed collections of Persian antiquities at Chicago's Field Museum and the University of Chicago to be seized. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File) (The Associated Press)

Survivors of a 1997 terrorist bombing blamed partly on Iran cannot seize antiquities from U.S. museums to help pay a $412 million judgment against the Iranian government, a federal judge in Chicago ruled Friday.

The ruling on Persian relics at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural Museum and the University of Chicago would come as a relief to museum officials elsewhere in the U.S., many of whom feared a ruling allowing the antiquities' sale would set a dangerous precedent that could put their own collections at risk.

The decade-old case stems from a suicide bomb attack at a Jerusalem mall, where explosives packed with rusty nails, screws and glass killed five people and injured nearly 200 others, some seriously.

In his 23-page decision, Judge Robert Gettleman said he "recognizes the tragic circumstances" of the case but that the plaintiffs hadn't proven, among other things, that the Iranian government even claimed ownership of the items.

Among the artifacts in question are hundreds of Persian tablets inscribed in an ancient alphabet that are more than 2,000 years old. They have been kept in Chicago University's Oriental Institute since the 1930s on long-term loan from Iran.

The Field Museum and the University of Chicago fought the bid to seize the artifacts, as did Iran.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas took responsibility for the terrorist attack, and a judge in Washington, D.C., later agreed the Iranian government was complicit by providing financial support and training for Hamas, entering the $412 million default judgment.

With limited Iranian assets in the U.S., plaintiffs' lawyers took the novel step of going after the antiquities. The subsequent battle in the courts involved knotty issues of sovereign immunity and terrorism laws, as well as cultural and scholarly exchanges.

The U.S. and Iran haven't had diplomatic relations since 1979 when militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held its occupants hostage. More recently, they've been embroiled in a dispute over Iran's nuclear program.

As Gettleman noted, U.S. officials also weighed in, opposing the effort to use museum items to pay such judgments.


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