A U.S. judge accused Russia on Thursday of acting like a “scofflaw” and an “outlaw” by refusing his order to hand over historical books and documents to the Chabad Lubavitch movement.
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Royce Lamberth, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Washington, made the comments at a court hearing in a longstanding lawsuit against Russia. In January, Lamberth slapped Russia with a $50,000-a-day civil contempt sanction for refusing his earlier order to give the documents, known as the Schneerson library, the Hasidic movement headquartered in New York.
Russia has refused to recognize the authority of the U.S. court and claims the documents are state property. The country has transferred some of the documents to the new Jewish Museum in Moscow. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the museum and declared, “From this moment, I consider the question of the Schneerson library to be closed.”
At Thursday’s hearing, Nathan Lewin, a lawyer for Chabad, said that the partial transfer of materials to the museum doesn’t satisfy Chabad’s religious needs or the court’s order that the materials be returned. But Lewin also noted that there have been negotiations between the U.S. and Russia over the impasse, and he asked for a hearing to be set for Aug. 20 to give those talks a chance to bear fruit. Several rabbis from Chabad were in the courtroom from New York, California and Israel.
Lamberth, who granted the request, said that Russia “is not willing to obey the laws of the United States, or any other country.”
The Russian embassy did not immediately return phone and email messages Thursday. Putin had earlier criticized Lamberth’s ruling imposing the sanctions, saying “discussion of this problem has taken on elements of confrontation,” Russian news agencies reported. The Russian Foreign Ministry called the ruling “an absolutely unlawful and provocative decision” and threatened a tough response if U.S authorities try to seize Russian property in an attempt to pay for the sanctions. The Obama administration had urged Lamberth not to issue the sanctions, arguing they wouldn’t help resolve the dispute and would hurt U.S. foreign-policy interests.
Russia had earlier halted all art exhibit loans to the U.S., fearing they would be seized and held hostage in the court battle. That’s despite Chabad’s assurance in court filings that it will not go after any art deemed culturally significant by the State Department, which is the case for major exhibitions. Such art is already protected from legal claims under the Immunity from Seizure Act.
There are two collections at issue: 12,000 religious books and manuscripts seized during the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian Civil War nearly a century ago; and 25,000 pages of handwritten teachings and other writings of religious leaders stolen by Nazi Germany during World War II and then transferred by the Soviet Red Army as war booty to the Russian State Military Archive. The books and manuscripts, some hundreds of years old, record Chabad’s core teachings and traditions.
The case has been dragging on for about eight years, and efforts to get the materials returned date back decades, involving presidential administrations and members of Congress of both parties.