It's been more than five months since a Washington, D.C., federal judge ordered sanctions of $50,000 per day against the Russian government for refusing to turn over thousands of Jewish religious texts seized in the early 20th century. After hearing testimony Thursday morning that Russia had continued to disobey his order, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth said the country was acting as a "scofflaw" and an "outlaw."
Agudas Chasidei Chabad of the United States sued Russia beginning in 2004 for the return of the texts, which included an estimated 12,000 books and manuscripts taken during a period of civil unrest in Russia and more than 25,000 pages of handwritten texts taken by the Soviet Red Army as war loot from the Nazis. In 2010, Lamberth ordered Russia to return the collection. After several years of noncompliance, the judge ordered civil contempt sanctions on January 16.
Since then, the plaintiffs have asked for a series of continuances in the case as the U.S. Department of State engaged in direct negotiations with the Russian government. Today, lead plaintiffs counsel, Nathan Lewin of Washington's Lewin & Lewin, asked for another continuance until August, saying it would help facilitate the ongoing talks.
Lamberth said it was "very disappointing" that the Russian government was unwilling to follow the court's order. Lewin said he and his clients were still hopeful that they could resolve the case amicably.
Lewin said about 500 books — a small portion of the collection — were deposited by the Russian government earlier this month at the Jewish Museum in Moscow. However, he said the transfer did not resolve the case or satisfy Lamberth's order. Chabad has asked for the return of the full set of texts to its headquarters in New York.
The Russian government stopped participating in the case in 2009, informing Lamberth at the time it would no longer recognize the court's authority. In statements, Russian officials have said they don't consider Chabad the rightful owner of the texts.
The Justice Department has supported Chabad's efforts to recover the collections, but unsuccessfully argued against the sanctions, warning they could hurt U.S. foreign policy interests. Government lawyers did not speak during Thursday's hearing.
After the hearing, Lewin and his co-counsel, Alyza Lewin, declined to discuss details of the government-to-government negotiations in recent months. They said they were not directly involved in the talks, but were being kept informed by the U.S. government.
Alyza Lewin said that in light of the ongoing diplomatic discussions, the plaintiffs hadn't taken any steps yet to collect the contempt sanctions. "The Chabad community wants the books, they don't want the money," she said. Russian officials halted art loans to the United States in 2011, expressing concern that Chabad would try to seize those items. Chabad's lawyers have repeatedly said they would not do so.
As of this week, the sanctions totaled more than $7 million.
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.