US opposes penalty for Russia over historic books

A Jewish group, Chabad-Lubavitch, wants to have civil fines levied against Russia for failing to obey a court order to return its historic books.

Updated: Sep 11, 2012, 10:00 AM IST

Washington: 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 loan of Russian art works 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 US foreign policy interests and inconsistent with US law.

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

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 US embassy in Moscow or to the group`s representative.

Russia, which doesn`t recognise the authority of the US court, has refused. It says the collection is part of Russia`s national heritage.

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

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

Alarmed at the prospect of having its property seized, Russia has refused to loan any art to this country for exhibitions, even though Chabad has said in court filings that it will not go after any art deemed culturally significant by the State Department which is the case 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. "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 US courts or administrative bodies."

At issue are two collections: 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.