Dutch appeals judges on Tuesday ruled that a priceless collection of Crimean gold "must be handed over to Ukraine," in a decision welcomed by Kiev but criticised by Russia.
The pieces, dubbed "Scythian Gold" and loaned to the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam just before Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, have been subject to legal wrangling since four museums on the peninsula launched a joint challenge seven years ago to have them returned.
In 2016, a lower Dutch court ruled that the treasures were part of Ukraine's cultural heritage and must be returned to Kiev -- not to the museums who launched the petition -- on the grounds that Crimea was not considered a sovereign state.
The Crimean museums appealed the judgement. But on Tuesday, the Dutch court of appeal ruled that the gold should be held by Ukraine "pending stabilisation in the Crimea."
On Tuesday, the lawyer for the Crimea museums said his clients were saddened by the decision. Russian senators denounced it.
It was not immediately clear whether the four museums would lodge a final appeal before the Dutch highest Supreme Court, or when the pieces would actually be handed over to Kiev.
"The Amsterdam Court of Appeal has ruled that the Allard Pierson museum has to hand over the 'Crimean Treasures' to the Ukrainian state," presiding judge Pauline Hofmeijer-Rutten said.
"Although the museum pieces originate from Crimea and to that extent may be considered a part of Crimean heritage, they are part of the cultural heritage of the Ukrainian State as it has existed as an independent state since 1991," the judges said.
Kiev was allowed to "protect its cultural heritage, notwithstanding the museums' rights to operational management," the judges determined.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed what he called a "long-awaited victory" and a "fair decision".
"We always regain what's ours. After the 'Scythian gold', we'll return Crimea," he said on Twitter.
The lawyer representing the Crimean museums said his clients "were very sad" by the decision.
"The goods are considered to be of Ukrainian heritage and are to be given back. But there is no 'back' because it never belonged to Kiev's museums," Rob Meijer told reporters outside the courthouse.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had no official comment.
Russia's culture ministry said it supported the museums' bid to get the treasures back, saying that the pieces had been found in the Crimea and "belong" to a museum that originally exhibited them.
"Museum collections are indivisible and inalienable. This is a well-known professional rule," the ministry said in a statement sent to AFP.
Russian senators Vladimir Dzhabarov and Andrey Klishas both denounced the verdict in Russian media, saying it was a "biased decision" that Russia will not "leave unanswered".
The treasures have until now been kept in "safe storage" at the Allard Pierson museum, which is the archaeological museum of the University of Amsterdam.
The collection spans the second century BC to the late medieval era, when Crimea was at the crossroads of ancient trade routes through an area dominated by the Scythian people.
The treasures were loaned to the Allard Pierson less than a month before Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 and displayed in an exhibition titled: "The Crimea: Gold and Secrets from the Black Sea".
Kiev says Russia illegally annexed the Black Sea territory, a month after Ukraine's Moscow-backed president was ousted in a pro-EU revolt and accuses Moscow of backing a pro-Russian insurgency in Ukraine's east.
When both Ukraine and the Crimean museums lodged rival claims to the collection and sought its return, the museum was "caught between hammer and anvil" and so kept hold of the collection, the court said previously.
In 2016, Kiev hailed the decision by the Amsterdam district court as a wider victory while Moscow reacted with anger.
In 2019, the Amsterdam appeals court said it needed "further information" from both sides before making a decision.
Given that the case appeared outside the jurisdiction of Dutch, EU and UNESCO world heritage laws, the court said it was "a question of deciding who has the strongest rights".
The appeals court on Tuesday found that "the Ukrainian state carries great weight" in terms of preserving the pieces in the public interest and that "outweigh the interests of Crimean museums".
© Agence France-Presse