US opposes penalty for Russia over historic books

Associated Press Modified: September 10, 2012 at 11:47 am •  Published: September 10, 2012
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is opposing a Jewish group's bid to have civil fines levied against Russia for failing to obey a court order to return its historic books and documents — a dispute that has halted the loan of Russian art works for exhibit in the United States.

In a recent court filing, the Justice Department argued that judicial sanctions against Russia in this case would be contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests and inconsistent with U.S. law.

The Jewish group, Chabad-Lubavitch, based in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, has already convinced Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court here that it has a valid claim to the tens of thousands of religious books and manuscripts, some up to 500 years old, which record the group's core teachings and traditions.

Lamberth ruled the records are unlawfully possessed by the Russian State Library and the Russian military archive. And in 2010, he ordered the Russian government to turn them over to the U.S. embassy in Moscow or to the group's representative.

Russia, which doesn't recognize the authority of the U.S. court, has refused. It says the collection is part of Russia's national heritage.

Chabad's lawsuit and earlier rulings in the case by Lamberth have already had unintended consequences: Russia has completely halted the loan of its art treasures for exhibit in the United States, for fear that they will be seized and held hostage in the court battle.

Lamberth is known for issuing largely unenforceable multimillion-dollar judgments against foreign governments he believes are hostile to this country and have harmed U.S. citizens, but last year he granted Chabad permission to seek attachment of Russian property in the U.S. So far, the group has not done so.

Lamberth also is currently weighing Chabad's motion to hold Russia in civil contempt of court and impose fines of at least $25,000 a day.

Alarmed at the prospect of having its property seized, Russia has refused to loan any art to this country for exhibitions, even though Chabad has said in court filings that it will not go after any art deemed culturally significant by the State Department — which is the case for major exhibitions. Such art is already protected from legal claims under the Immunity from Seizure Act.

But Yevgeniy Khorishko, a Russian embassy spokesman in Washington, said that law is limited in scope.

"Moreover, it is U.S. national law, while we would like to have some kind of international obligations to ensure the return of our cultural objects on the part of the U.S.," he said in an email. "As for the Chabad's statement, we don't regard it as a sufficient guarantee. Taking into account the 2010 court judgment, we cannot exclude other unpredictable decisions by U.S. courts or administrative bodies."

At issue are two collections: 12,000 religious books and manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian Civil War nearly a century ago; and 25,000 pages of handwritten teachings and other writings of religious leaders stolen by Nazi Germany during World War II, then transferred by the Soviet Red Army as war booty to the Russian State Military Archive.

Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement within orthodox Judaism, is estimated to have more than 200,000 adherents and to draw perhaps a million to some of its services in about 70 countries It was founded in the late 1700s in Eastern Europe, and has been led through its history by seven "Rebbes," who amassed the books and writings. The group was incorporated in New York City in 1940.

In its filing, the Justice Department said that Chabad's bid for sanctions is precluded by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The department argues that this law doesn't allow a court to compel compliance with an order for property held by a foreign state within the state's own territory.



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