- Associated Press - Monday, September 10, 2012

The Obama administration is opposing a Jewish group’s bid to have civil fines levied against Russia for failing to obey a court order to return its historic books and documents — a dispute that has halted the lending of Russian artworks for exhibit in the United States.

In a recent court filing, the Justice Department argued that judicial sanctions against Russia in this case would be contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests and inconsistent with U.S. law.

The Jewish group, Chabad-Lubavitch, based in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, has already convinced Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court that it has a valid claim to the tens of thousands of religious books and manuscripts, some up to 500 years old, that record the group’s core teachings and traditions.

Judge Lamberth ruled the records are unlawfully possessed by the Russian State Library and the Russian military archive. And in 2010, he ordered the Russian government to turn them over to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow or to the group’s representative.

Russia, which doesn’t recognize the authority of the U.S. court, has refused. It insists the collection is part of Russia’s national heritage.

Chabad’s lawsuit and earlier rulings in the case by Judge Lamberth have already had unintended consequences: Russia has completely halted the lending of its art treasures for exhibit in the United States for fear they will be seized and held hostage in the court battle.

Judge Lamberth is known for issuing largely unenforceable multimillion-dollar judgments against foreign governments he believes are hostile to this country and have harmed U.S. citizens, but last year he granted Chabad permission to seek attachment of Russian property in the U.S. So far, the group has not done so.

Judge Lamberth also is currently weighing Chabad’s motion to hold Russia in civil contempt of court and impose fines of at least $25,000 a day.

Alarmed at the prospect of having its property seized, Russia has refused to lend any art to the U.S. for exhibitions, even though Chabad has said in court filings that it will not claim any art deemed culturally significant by the State Department, which is the situation for major exhibitions. Such art is already protected from legal claims under the Immunity From Seizure Act.

But Yevgeniy Khorishko, a Russian Embassy spokesman in Washington, said that law is limited in scope.

“Moreover, it is U.S. national law, while we would like to have some kind of international obligations to ensure the return of our cultural objects on the part of the U.S.,” he said in an email. “As for the Chabad’s statement, we don’t regard it as a sufficient guarantee. Taking into account the 2010 court judgment, we cannot exclude other unpredictable decisions by U.S. courts or administrative bodies.”

At issue are two collections: A total of 12,000 religious books and manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War nearly a century ago, and 25,000 pages of handwritten teachings and other writings of religious leaders stolen by Nazi Germany during World War II, then transferred by the Soviet Red Army as war booty to the Russian State Military Archive.

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