CHICAGO (AP) — Survivors of a 1997 terrorist bombing blamed partly on Iran can't seize thousands of relics from U.S. museums to pay a $412 million judgment against the Iranian government, a federal judge in Chicago ruled Friday.
The case targeting the Persian antiquities at the Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute was closely watched nationwide by other museum officials, who feared a ruling against the Chicago museums could set an alarming precedent that might put their own collections at risk.
"I am very pleased," said Matt Stolper, who oversees Persian collections at the Oriental Institute. "I'm happy these (artifacts) don't need to be surrendered to be turned into money."
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 that the Iranian government owned the Field Museum items. And he said the Oriental Institute artifacts were loaned for scholarship, not commercial purposes, and so couldn't be seized.
Among the artifacts in question are thousands of Persian tablets, many of which are inscribed in an ancient alphabet, which are more than 2,000 years old. They have been kept in the Oriental Institute since the 1930s on the long-term loan agreement with Iranian authorities at the time. The Field Museum collection was far smaller.
Stolper also expressed sympathy for the plaintiffs, who included people badly burned in the bombing.
"They are victims of atrocious crimes and they are desperate for a remedy and for some control," he said. "I don't think this was a way to do it."
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, David Strachman, didn't immediately respond to a message left Friday. Museum attorneys said they expect the plaintiffs to appeal the ruling to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.
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