A Washington federal judge on Wednesday ordered the Russian government to pay $50,000 for each day officials refuse to comply with a court order calling for the return of Jewish religious texts seized in the early 20th century.
U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth issued Wednesday’s opinion (PDF) over objections from the U.S. Department of Justice, which argued that the court didn’t have the authority to enter sanctions and warned that it could threaten U.S. foreign policy interests. Lamberth wrote that the court could issue contempt sanctions that would not attach to Russian property on Russian soil.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has for years fought in court for the return of books and manuscripts seized during a period of unrest in Russia as well as thousands of pages of texts stolen by the Nazis and later taken as “war booty” by the Soviet Red Army. Lamberth found in favor of Chabad and ordered Russia to return the texts in 2010.
“This ruling sends a strong message to nations that steal religious and cultural properties in war: that they can’t get away with that,” said Seth Gerber of Bingham McCutchen, a lead attorney for Chabad. “There are consequences for violating international law.”
The Russian government has not participated in the litigation since 2009, when it told Lamberth that it would not recognize the court’s authority. A representative of the Russian Embassy in Washington could not immediately be reached for comment.
In Wednesday’s opinion, Lamberth cited a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit holding that the district court could issue contempt sanctions against a foreign state under the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The previous case involved the Democratic Republic of Congo’s failure to comply with a discovery order, as opposed to the final order entered in the Chabad case, but Lamberth wrote that the same principle applied.
Noting that the threat of sanctions spurred Russian officials to meet with plaintiffs lawyers in the past, Lamberth wrote that issuing sanctions was an appropriate and necessary move to get Russia to comply. Previous negotiations were unsuccessful.
U.S. officials have supported Chabad’s claim to the texts, but the Justice Department argued that a sanctions order could hurt U.S. foreign policy interests and lead other countries to adopt similar orders against the United States. Lamberth said the Justice Department failed to understand that in issuing the sanctions order, the court wasn’t ordering the attachment of Russian property located in Russia. Government lawyers also argued that sanctions would hurt future efforts to negotiate for the return of the texts, but Lamberth said he hadn’t seen evidence supporting that.
“[T]hough the United States may indeed be ‘committed to continuing these efforts,’ it provides neither any information regarding its future plans, nor any other reason to believe that its new efforts will be more likely to succeed than past failures,” he wrote.
To enforce Lamberth’s final order, Chabad and its lawyers have repeatedly said that they would not go after Russian art or cultural objects in the United States. The Russian government banned art loans to the United States, citing fears that the Chabad plaintiffs would seize it.
Nathan Lewin of Washington’s Lewin & Lewin, also a lead attorney for Chabad, said that if the Russian government still refuses to return the texts, they’ll seek to satisfy the sanctions using guidelines set out in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
“I just hope that what this does is it will bring the defendants to a realization that this matter is not going to end simply by their refusing to comply or their claiming that there’s no jurisdiction,” Lewin said.
A spokesman for the Justice Department, Charles Miller, declined to comment. A representative of the State Department could not immediately be reached for comment.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.