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By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices expressed scepticism on Monday over whether ancient Persian artefacts housed in a Chicago museum can be seized to pay for a $71 million (£52.7 million) court judgement against Iran over its alleged role in a 1997 bombing attack in Jerusalem.
The court heard oral arguments in an appeal by several U.S. citizens injured in the attack of a 2016 ruling by a federal appeals court siding with Iran. The justices will determine when a foreign state's assets may be seized under federal law to pay for damages awarded by U.S. courts to victims of militant attacks.
Iran is one of several countries and organizations ordered by U.S. courts to pay damages in similar cases, though such orders have been difficult to enforce.
The dispute concerns the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a federal law that largely shields foreign governments from liability, and their assets from seizure, in American courts, except in the case of countries designated by the U.S. government as state sponsors of terrorism, a list that includes Iran.
The law also exempts from immunity certain foreign-owned property used for commercial purposes in the United States. Some of the justices questioned whether non-commercial property such as the artefacts at issue in the case may be seized.
"This sounds like something Congress has to address," Justice Sonia Sotomayor told the plaintiffs' lawyer, Asher Perlin.
"I don't think there will be a mad rush" to seize antiquities, Perlin replied.
The long-running Chicago lawsuit arose from a 1997 attack in which three members of the Islamic militant group Hamas blew themselves up at a crowded pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, killing five people. Eight U.S. citizens were injured.
The plaintiffs targeted collections of ancient Persian artefacts including the Persepolis Collection held at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.
President Donald Trump's administration sided with Iran and the university, warning that litigation against foreign states in the United States can affect the reciprocal treatment of the U.S. in foreign courts.
On Monday, Justice Department Zachary Tripp told the justices that if the U.S. Congress wanted to allow antiquities of "cultural and historic significance" to be seized, it would have explicitly said so in the law, but did not.
Only eight of the nine justices took part in the arguments, with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)