By Andrew Stern
CHICAGO, May 29 (Reuters) - Families of those killed in the Beirut Marine barracks bombing 25 years ago staked their claim on Thursday to ancient Persian clay tablets, on loan to a U.S. museum, to satisfy a $2.7 billion judgment won against Iran.
Iran’s government, declared a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States for its support of militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, has largely ignored civil suits seeking compensation for victims of Middle East attacks engineered by the two groups.
Tehran has said it does not recognize the jurisdiction of U.S. courts but has paid a lawyer to represent its interests in Chicago to shield the priceless tablets from civil claims.
Iran’s culture minister has said its archeological treasures have no place in a courtroom, and some U.S. museums and the U.S. government have argued on Iran’s behalf that its artifacts should not be seized, saying it would set a bad precedent.
But U.S. District Court Judge Blanche Manning in Chicago has ruled that Iran must defend its own interests and has allowed the plaintiffs to proceed.
On Thursday, Manning said she would decide on two competing claims for the tablets.
A lawyer who won a $250 million default judgment against Iran in 2003 on behalf of Americans wounded in a 1997 Jerusalem shopping mall bombing has sought the rights to the tablets ever since.
While the 2,500-year-old tablets are still in limbo, lawyer David Strachman said the group has seized a $400,000 Texas house owned by Iran and modest amounts from U.S. bank accounts.
A resolution may be a long way off, said the lawyer representing the other group of claimants.
Thousands of the tablets and fragments have been on loan from Iran to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute since they were excavated nearly 80 years ago by university archeologists.
Translations of the cuneiform writing scrawled into the fragile, unbaked clay have opened a window onto everyday life in the former Persian capital of Persepolis.
Each tablet could be worth thousands of dollars, though their value to anyone other than scholars is unclear. Several hundred of the thick, candy bar-sized tablets have previously been returned to Iran.
The second group, comprising families of some of the 241 U.S. servicemen killed and others wounded in the 1983 Beirut suicide truck bombing, say they do not want the tablets auctioned off.
Both groups say they want to appoint a receiver to sell off rights to the tablets to a museum or university to keep them out of private hands.
The Beirut victims’ attorney, David Cook, said Iran could satisfy last year’s $2.7 billion judgment another way.
"If we’re successful and get ahold of these antiquities, all they have to do is write a check from their petrodollar account," Cook said in an interview outside the courtroom.
Cook said he e-mailed his notice of a claim to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s office and was having the reply translated from Farsi.
There are dozens of terrorism-related civil claims against Iran in U.S. courts and elsewhere, and the number of U.S. legal actions may rise, Cook said.
A law enacted in January specifically exempted nations declared state sponsors of terrorism, like Iran, from immunity from civil claims on their assets.
The cases have parallels with other disputes over cultural patrimony and the priceless holdings of Western museums, including Greece’s appeals to recover the Elgin Marbles taken from the Acropolis that are on display at the British Museum. (Editing by Michael Conlon and Mohammad Zargham)