In September 1997, three Hamas suicide bombers entered a crowded pedestrian mall in Jerusalem and blew themselves up, killing and injuring many people. Eight plaintiffs – comprised of victims or family members of victims of the Jerusalem attack – filed suit against the Islamic Republic of Iran alleging liability on the basis that Iran’s government, as a U.S-designated state sponsor of terror providing support to Hamas, were responsible for the attack.
In 2003, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia entered a default judgment in favor of the plaintiffs in the amount of $71.5 million, which Iran did not pay. In an effort to collect the $71.5 million, the plaintiffs initiated numerous other cases across the country over the course of 13 years as creditors attempting to seize and attach on Iranian assets located inside the United States.
The plaintiffs sought to seize four collections of ancient Persian artifacts, including a collection of tablets containing some of the oldest writings in the world – the Persepolis tablets. These artifacts, which are allegedly owned by Iran, were loaned to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.
The District Court held, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, that although the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) allows plaintiffs to seize the property of a foreign state-sponsor of terror that is “used for a commercial activity in the United States,” the law requires the property to be used by the foreign government itself, not a third party like the museums here.
The Ninth Circuit, Second Circuit, and District of Columbia Circuits Court of Appeals, in separate cases, have all previously held that terror victims are able to attach and execute on any asset of a foreign state sponsor of terror.
The U.S. Supreme Court must now resolve the split among the Circuits and resolve a singular question: can United States citizen victims of terror sue foreign countries designated as state sponsors of terror, win judgments for money damages, and seize and sell ANY property of the foreign country to satisfy the judgment?
The plaintiffs argue that “private lawsuits brought directly against designated state sponsors of terror like” Iran have been “one of the most effective civil terror-fighting tools,” and that allowing the 7th Circuit’s ruling to stand “would thwart many such enforcement efforts, shielding assets that Iran and other state sponsors of terror hold in the United States.”
Oral argument was held on December 4th.