A Washington federal judge granted Chabad-Lubavitch permission Tuesday morning to execute a judgment against the Russian Federation for the return of thousands of religious texts seized in the early 20th century.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Judge Royce Lamberth, in an opinion published this morning, wrote that Chabad had met the requirements for notifying the Russian government about the judgment and was free to begin seeking means of enforcement. The Russian defendants previously notified the court that they no longer planned to participate in litigation or recognize court orders as binding.
Lamberth denied — at least for the time being — Chabad’s request for civil contempt sanctions against the Russian defendants for their failure to comply with Lamberth’s orders. He wrote that the defendants will get an additional 60 days to receive notification of the possibility of penalties and respond.
Although the Russian Federation is no longer litigating the case, it announced a freeze on art loans to the United States and recalled art already on loan in response. Russian officials expressed concern that Chabad would try to enforce the judgment by seizing art on loan from the Russian Federation to the United States.
Chabad has repeatedly said it won’t go after any art protected by international laws governing the exchange of artwork and artifacts. The Justice Department entered a statement of interest in the case in June, expressing similar concerns that any order from the court should make it clear that protected Russian art and artifacts are off limits.
Lamberth said that while the law is already clear on what items can be used to enforce a judgment, he appreciated Chabad’s assurances. The court has to approve any assets Chabad might present to execute the judgment.
Nathan Lewin of Washington’s Lewin & Lewin, an attorney for Chabad, said today that he was encouraged that Lamberth left the door open to civil contempt sanctions in the future. He said he and his clients are seeking any Russian assets that could be used to enforce the judgment, but ultimately just want the texts in question back.
“It would behoove, I would think, the Russian government to work out some arrangement under which they would return these religious treasures,” he said.
Chabad, an orthodox movement within Judaism, wants the Russian government to turn over approximately 12,000 books and manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War in the early 20th century and 25,000 pages of handwritten texts stolen by Nazis during World War II and then taken by Russian soldiers once the war was over.
Yevgeniy Khorishko, press secretary for the Russian Embassy in Washington, declined to comment on the opinion.