A federal judge ordered Russia on Thursday to preserve sacred religious documents that members of a Hasidic Jewish movement fear could be headed to the black market.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth issued a restraining order telling Russia to protect the documents and return any that may already have been removed from the Russian State Military Archives.
The order comes in a lawsuit filed by members of Chabad-Lubavitch, which follows the teachings of Eastern European rabbis and emphasizes the study of the Torah. The group is suing Russia in U.S. court to recover thousands of manuscripts, prayers, lectures and philosophical discourses by leading rabbis dating back to the 18th century.
An attorney for the movement, Nathan Lewin, told the judge Thursday that during a visit to Israel last month he learned that pages from the handwritten archive were shown to an expert in Jerusalem. The expert, a former university librarian, had been asked to confirm the documents' authenticity and was led to believe that they were going to be offered for sale.
The entire collection, which Chabad says totals 12,000 books and 50,000 rare documents, is being held in the Russian State Military Archives. Lewin said Chabad fears the documents are not being properly cared for and could end up missing.
The collection was formerly held by Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, a leader of Chabad-Lubavitch who was born in Russia but forced by the Soviets to leave in 1927. He took the documents to Latvia and later Poland, but left them behind when the Nazis invaded and he fled to the U.S. The collection was seized and taken to Germany, then recovered by the Soviet Army in 1945.
Lewin asked Lamberth to order Russia to allow a delegation from Chabad to inspect the collection at the Russian library and ensure that they are being properly secured.
Lamberth also warned Russia that the government faces a default ruling in the case if it does not get new lawyers to represent them in the U.S. court.
The law firm representing Russia has asked to withdraw from the case because they say their client has not paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills and no longer communicates with them.
The law firm says government representatives have refused to take their calls, respond to memos about the case or see an attorney who traveled to Moscow for a face-to-face meeting. Attorneys for Russia said they did not know whether any documents were removed from the collection since the Russian government is not talking to them.
Lamberth told Chabad that he did not think that he could order a sovereign government like Russia to accept foreigners into the country and encouraged them to explore other methods of reviewing the collection, such as hiring attorneys already in Moscow.
Lamberth agreed to take the case in U.S. court because he said both the Nazi seizure and the Russian government's appropriation of the archives violated international law.
Members of Chabad also say that they are asking the Obama administration to intervene to get the documents returned.