Paying with the Past

Lawyers for victims of two 20th-century terrorist bombings are trying to force the sale of a cache of 2,500-year-old Persian tablets currently on loan to Chicago’s Oriental Institute.

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The aftermath of the September 1997 suicide bombing at Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda shopping district

 

Before September 4, 1997, the only link among the eight Americans who came under attack in Jerusalem that day—five teenagers, a chiropractor, a tourist, and a reporter—was their nationality. But on that warm late-summer afternoon, they had another connection—being at Ben Yehuda, where a Burger King, a McDonald’s, and a pizza shop were magnets for visiting Americans—and it would change their lives forever.

A few minutes after three o’clock, three Palestinian terrorists pulled the detonators on bombs that were packed with glass, nails, and corrosive chemicals. The explosion killed the bombers and five Israelis and caused severe burns and other wounds to scores of others, among them the eight U.S. citizens. At an evidentiary hearing in 2003, one of Rubin’s plaintiffs, Avi Elishis, who was 18 at the time of the bombing, testified that when he touched his badly burned face, it felt “like a corn chip.” In the months after the bombing, he underwent multiple operations to remove metal fragments, including a two-inch screw in his spleen and a quarter-inch bolt in his heel, and his body is riddled with scars. “One [screw] is still in me,” he said. “It’s right under my rib, right by my spinal column.”

After the bombing, the Americans said, they were too physically scarred and emotionally traumatized to handle ordinary existence, much less the careers, the incomes, and the personal relationships they had once expected to enjoy. At the 2003 hearing, one man spoke of the insomnia and hypervigilance that had made it impossible for him to relax on a vacation or even sit through a movie. Another talked about chronic facial pain, headaches, and the inability to work a full day, and a third said that he felt so frightened and worthless that he tried to kill himself.

The experience was also devastating for family members who had to watch and care for badly injured loved ones. Another plaintiff, Elana Rozenman, the mother of Noam Rozenman, a junior in high school at the time of the blast, testified that when she first saw her son, he literally looked like toast. “I leaned down to kiss his forehead,” she said, “and his skin came off in my mouth.” After spending months in the hospital with him, listening to him moan in pain and being sent out of the burn unit so that she wouldn’t hear his screams whenever his dressings were changed, she developed such severe stress symptoms that she had to take a year off to recover.

In the past, these plaintiffs would have found little satisfaction in a U.S. courtroom, for under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, individuals in most instances may not sue sovereign states. The U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act, however, passed by Congress in 1996 and since revised, waives this exemption, known as sovereign immunity, in cases that involve American victims of state-sponsored terrorism. But holders of judgments in such instances can seize and sell only assets involved in commerce. Citing this provision, lawyers for the University of Chicago have argued that, because the Persepolis tablets were research materials and had never been used commercially, they could not be confiscated.

Troubled by the difficulty plaintiffs had in collecting judgments against rogue states, New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg sponsored an amendment to the Anti-Terrorism Act. Passed by Congress in January 2008, this provision was intended to eliminate the act’s noncommercial exception and made any asset owned by state sponsors of terrorism subject to seizure. (Legal experts are still debating the precise interpretation of the amendment.) Since then, Strachman has refiled his lawsuit to take advantage of this change.

No one expects that the sale of the tablets could bring in a sum close to the Rubin judgment. It’s difficult to estimate the tablets’ dollar value, since only a small number of Persepolis-era cuneiform tablets have appeared on the antiquities market, where the average price has usually been under $500, even for a tablet in prime condition. Perhaps 5,000 to 10,000 of the Persepolis tablets are in good enough shape to fetch a decent price, which means that at best an auction would probably not bring in more than about $2 million to $4 million—and possibly considerably less, given that the release of so many tablets at once would likely drop the unit price.

But the Rubin plaintiffs seem unlikely to get their hands on even this amount. Until recently, they had sole claim to whatever revenues a tablet sale might produce, but they have now been joined by a second set of plaintiffs: the four American survivors of the 1983 Beirut blast and more than 800 family members of the slain marines. It took years for their lawsuit, known as Peterson v. Islamic Republic of Iran, to make its way through the judicial system, but in December 2007, they received a default judgment against Iran of $2.6 billion. Looking to make good on the debt, their attorney, David Cook, studied the Rubin case, and in May 2008 he filed a federal suit in Chicago demanding that his clients get first dibs on any money from the tablets.

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Photography: Reuters/Landov

 

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