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Terror Victims Claim University of Chicago Relics

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 13, 2005 12:32 pm    Post subject: Terror Victims Claim University of Chicago Relics Reply with quote

Terror Victims Claim University of Chicago Relics

December 13, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
Andrew Herrmannand Steve Warmbir


A group of terrorism victims is claiming that a set of ancient tablets worth millions rightfully belongs to them -- and not the University of Chicago, which is holding the Iranian texts.

Two years ago, the victims won a $71 million judgment against Iran for injuries suffered during a 1997 Iranian-linked suicide bombing in Jerusalem. The court order has been ignored by Iran, which the United States calls a "state sponsor of terrorism.''

Now, a handful of victims are going after Iranian assets in museums, including the tablets held by the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

The injured Americans -- some of whom "have been physically and/or emotionally crippled by the bombing'' -- are laying claim to the tablets for pain suffered when nail-filled bombs ripped through an Israeli marketplace -- a bombing a federal judge said occurred with Iranian help.

The Oriental Institute is fighting the group, saying that setting a precedent by turning over the objects to the victims could endanger American-owned museum pieces on loan to other countries.

"We're sympathetic with the victims of the terrorists but the law does not allow recovery under these circumstances,'' Beth Harris, general counsel for the University of Chicago, added in a statement Monday.

Tablets like 'credit card receipts'

The victims' attorney said the Institute has "effectively taken up the defense of Iran.''

The clay tablets, dating from about 500 B.C., give a glimpse into the inner workings of the administration of the ancient Persian Empire.

University of Chicago archeologists discovered the tablets in 1933 in Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire. Some of the tablets contain such information as daily rations of barley given to workers. One tablet expert has likened them to "credit card receipts.''

The tablets are officially owned by the National Museum of Iran and the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization. The suit claims they are worth tens of millions of dollars.

The Institute was loaned thousands of the tablets in 1937 for study purposes. Some 179 were returned to Iran in 1948 as were 37,000 more in 1951. The Institute announced last year that it planned to return more of the tablets to Iran.

In a press release issued at the time, Institute director Gil Stein called the return "part of a partnership.'' Said Stern, "As we complete our work on other tablets, we intend to return them also.''

David J. Strachman, a Rhode Island attorney for the victims, said his group has halted any more returns by the Institute.

The two sides have been arguing before U.S. District Judge Blanche M. Manning for more than a year.

Strachman described his clients as mostly high school and college age people who have had "their lives torn apart.'' Some are in "chronic pain and several were rendered unable to work and literally reduced to extreme poverty,'' the suit says.

Justice Dept. backs school

Five people were killed and 192 wounded in the 1997 attack on a crowded Jerusalem marketplace. The terrorist group Hamas was blamed and some analysts felt the bombings were timed to an upcoming visit by then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Americans may sue Iran for assets to cover judgments. But the U.S. Justice Department has sided with the University of Chicago. Because the artifacts are being held by the University of Chicago "solely for research and study, and are not used by Iran for commercial activity in the United States, they are also not available for attachment'' under law, the Justice Department argued in a filing.

University lawyers say that unlike "a bank account, an airplane or some other replaceable item'' museum pieces are special. The artifacts "are the unique property, not just of the government of Iran, but of the people of Iran . . .'' the lawyers say in the suit.
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