Judge finds Russia in contempt over books stolen by Nazis, orders $50,000 daily fine

January 16, 2013

A federal judge on Wednesday held the Russian government in contempt, ordering it to pay a $50,000-a-day fine until it complies with a court order to return to a Jewish group historical books and artifacts stolen by the Nazis.

In 2010, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District’s federal court ordered the Russian Federation to turn the texts over to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow or to a representative of the New York-based religious group Chabad-Lubavitch.

Russia has refused to turn over the texts, saying it does not recognize the authority of the U.S. court.

Chabad is seeking a collection of 12,000 books and manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War, in addition to 25,000 pages of handwritten teachings of Chabad religious leaders, which were seized by the Nazis during World War II and later transferred by the Soviet Red Army to the Russian State Military Archives.

The Obama administration has opposed the effort to impose fines as unenforceable and potentially damaging to U.S. foreign policy interests.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy said the government considers the collection part of the country’s “national heritage” and does not believe that Chabad is the “rightful owner.”

The decision, the embassy said in a statement, violates the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

In a 10-page opinion, Lamberth wrote that he was “not convinced” by the U.S. government’s arguments. He noted that the Russian government has “steadily resisted all legal and diplomatic efforts to compel them to return the collection for at least two decades.”

Lamberth also said that the threat of sanctions “apparently prompted defendants’ lawyers to meet face-to-face” with attorneys for Chabad, an Orthodox movement within Judaism. Despite “multiple meetings” at the Russian Embassy, however, the two sides were unable to reach a settlement, according to court documents.

As a result of the case, Russia has imposed a moratorium on lending its cultural treasures to the United States because of concerns that those items could be seized.

Lamberth insisted in his opinion that those fears are “legally unfounded, as such items would be immune under federal law from attachment.”

Through a spokesman, the Justice Department declined to comment on the ruling.

Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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