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The Edge of Justice

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Russia Feels Court Penalty for Grab of Chabad Papers

January 17th 2013

Nathan Lewin and Alyza D. Lewin
Attorneys Nathan and Alyza Lewin

The Russian government is about to feel the sting of American Justice. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has announced a substantial financial penalty to be assessed against the Russian Federation, the Russian Ministry of Culture, the Russian State Library, and the Russian State Military Archive for their disobedience of a July 30, 2010 order directing the Russian government to return to Agudas Chasidei Chabad a sacred collection of Jewish books and manuscripts that had been seized by the Russians during the Bolshevik Revolution and World War II. Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth imposed civil contempt sanctions against the defendants in the amount of $50,000 per day until the defendants comply with the Court’s order.

Agudas Chasidei Chabad of United States first sued the Russian government under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in 2004 for the return of the library and archives. The Russian government participated in the case for five years as the parties litigated over whether or not the U.S. courts had jurisdiction over the matter. In 2009, after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decided the jurisdictional issues in favor of Chabad, the Russian government informed the Court that it would no longer participate in the case.

In 2010, Judge Lamberth ordered the Russian government to surrender to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow or to the duly appointed representatives of Agudas Chabad the complete collection of religious books, manuscripts, documents, artifacts and other materials that comprise the Chabad library and archives sometimes referred to as the "Schneerson Collection." The Court also ordered the Russian government to assist and authorize the transfer of the collection and to secure it.

The Russian government failed to comply with the 2010 order, and nearly a year after the order was issued, Chabad moved for civil contempt sanctions. It asked for "the entry of a monetary penalty for every day that the defendants continue to disobey this Court’s order." The Russians failed to respond notwithstanding a court order to do so. The sanctions motion, however, prompted the Russian government to initiate settlement discussions with Chabad’s attorneys. Chabad then twice requested temporary stays of its sanction motion in order to help facilitate the settlement talks. When there was no progress from the talks, Chabad renewed its motion for sanctions in early 2012.

Before deciding the sanctions motion, Judge Lamberth solicited the views of the United States government. In response, the Administration submitted a statement in August 2012, urging the Court not to enter sanctions. Judge Lamberth held a hearing on the sanctions motion on January 9, 2013. In the opinion issued on January 16, Judge Lamberth said he found the government’s arguments unpersuasive and granted Chabad’s sanctions motion and imposed a $50,000 per day penalty on the defendants.

"Judge Lamberth’s order demonstrates to the Russian government that in the United States we have an independent judicial branch that will vindicate righteous claims. The Russian judiciary may be subject to the wishes of the Russian president, but in our country the expressed wishes of the Justice Department are not accepted by judges when, as in this case, they are contrary to law. Chabad is seeking only its sacred treasures and has never been interested in money damages, but if Russia will obey a court order only when contempt fines enforce it, we will reluctantly pursue that remedy," said Nathan Lewin, an attorney representing Chabad.

In addition to Washington DC lawyers Nathan Lewin and Alyza D. Lewin of Lewin & Lewin, LLP, Agudas Chasidei Chabad is represented by Seth Gerber, and Marshall Grossman of Bingham McCutchen LLP.

"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, another attorney representing Chabad. "There are consequences for violating international law."

Agudas Chasidei Chabad is headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y., with more than 3,000 international branches. It is the largest Jewish organization in the world today. Agudas Chasidei Chabad filed this action on Nov. 9, 2004 under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. After more than five years of hotly contested litigation, including an appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which affirmed the U.S. federal court’s jurisdiction over the defendants, the defendants withdrew from the litigation.


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