Eight months after the Russian Federation was ordered to turn over tens of thousands of pages of texts seized from Jewish religious leaders during the early 20th century, the books, manuscripts and other sacred documents are nowhere to be found.
Chabad-Lubavitch, an orthodox movement within Judaism, filed a motion on Monday in Washington federal court asking for civil contempt sanctions (PDF) to be placed against the Russian government. On July 30, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth entered a default judgment (PDF) against Russia, ordering them to turn over the texts; the Russian government had previously notified the court that they no longer planned to recognize its orders as binding, claiming a lack of jurisdiction.
Chabad is fighting for 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. More on the case can be found here.
The lawsuit was moved from a California federal court to Washington in 2006. Following a ruling from Lamberth that granted Chabad only some of the documents in question, both sides appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The appellate judges found Chabad had grounds to sue for the return of all of the texts.
In June 2009, the Russian government notified the court (PDF) that they no longer planned to participate or recognize the court’s rulings as binding; their relationship with attorneys from Washington’s Squire, Sanders & Dempsey ended shortly after. Chabad moved for default judgment, which Lamberth granted on July 30, 2010.
The defendants were served with a notice of the order, according to Chabad’s motion for sanctions filed yesterday, but “both Chabad and the Court continue to wait empty-handed for delivery of the Library and Archive.”
Chabad is asking the court to place significant monetary sanctions on the Russian government, noting that civil contempt sanctions are not punitive and are meant to force action. The motion cites previous cases in which the court levied sanctions as high as $500,000 per day to force compliance with court orders.
In previous filings, the defendants have stated that diplomacy, not the courts, is the proper realm to settle the dispute.
Chabad’s attorney, Nathan Lewin of Washington’s Lewin & Lewin, said in a phone interview this morning that a recent appeals court decision upholding monetary contempt sanctions against the Democratic Republic of Congo set the stage for Chabad to file its motion yesterday.
“As the D.C. Circuit said… you can enter a contempt order and that’s certainly within the court’s power,” he said. “We’re just going to move ahead aggressively.”
Updated at 1 p.m. to correct the definition of Chabad.