The U.S. Department of Justice is considering whether to get involved in a lawsuit brought against the Russian Federation over the return of Jewish religious documents seized in the early 20th century.
On Friday, attorneys for the U.S. government filed a notice of potential participation (PDF) in the case, stating that they would decide whether to file a formal statement of interest by May 16. The notice comes two weeks after the plaintiff in the lawsuit, Chabad-Lubavitch, asked the court to place civil contempt sanctions on Russia for failing to comply with a previous court order to turn over the documents. That motion can be found here (PDF).
Attorneys for the U.S. government, referring to Chabad’s request for sanctions, stated in their notice that, “Certain issues raised by that Motion may be of interest to the United States,” but did not specify further. DOJ spokesman Charles Miller said in an e-mail this morning that more information on the government’s interest in the case would only become available if they decide to formally participate.
Chabad, an orthodox movement within Judaism, is suing the Russian government in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking the return of 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.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth entered a default judgment against the Russian government on July 30, ordering authorities to turn over the texts. The Russian government had previously notified the court that it no longer intended to recognize its orders as binding.
On April 4, Chabad filed a motion asking Lamberth to place steep monetary penalties on the Russian government in light of their failure to comply with Lamberth’s order.
The government has asked the court to hold off on ruling on Chabad’s motion until the May 16 deadline.
Chabad’s lead counsel, Nathan Lewin of Washington’s Lewin & Lewin, said Monday that attorneys for the government have not told him the extent of their possible involvement in the case.
“I would trust they would come out on our side,” he said. “[U.S. officials] have made public promises to Chabad that they would be supportive to get those documents back.”