Assad regime found liable for war reporter Marie Colvin’s death in landmark $300m US lawsuit
The Syrian government has been found culpable for the killing of veteran conflict correspondent Marie Colvin in a £230m judgment in a US court – a landmark case holding Bashar al-Assad’s government to account for war crimes.
The civil lawsuit, filed by Colvin’s sister Cathleen in Washington DC, was the first of its kind brought in America against the Syrian regime over its conduct in the war.
Colvin, 56, was killed on February 22, 2012, when the makeshift media centre where she and other journalists were working came under fire in the rebel-held Bab Amr neighbourhood of Homs, Syria.
In this week’s ruling, the court found that Colvin, a long-time reporter for the Sunday Times newspaper, was deliberately targeted. After tracking Colvin through intercepted satellite calls and informants, Syrian senior officials ordered an artillery strike against her location, killing Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik, and wounding French reporter Edith Bouvier, as well as Paul Conroy, the photographer working with Colvin, and Syrian media activist Wael al-Omar.
President Bashar al-Assad initially claimed that his forces had not known who was in the house, however later said the American-born correspondent was responsible for her own death as she had been "working with terrorists."
Citing the regime’s effort to silence those reporting on its crimes, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the US District Court for the District of Columbia imposed more than $302 million in damages against Syria for its "unconscionable attack".
She determined that it was part of “Syria’s long-standing policy of violence” against journalists, who were “labelled enemies of the state.”
“By perpetrating a directed attack against the media centre, Syria intended to intimidate journalists, inhibit newsgathering and the dissemination of information, and suppress dissent," Judge Jackson said. "A targeted murder of an American citizen, whose courageous work was not only important, but vital to our understanding of warzones and of wars generally, is outrageous.”
Cathleen Colvin said after the ruling: “It is my greatest hope that the court’s ruling will lead to other criminal prosecutions, and serve as a deterrent against future attacks on the press and on civilians. Marie dedicated her life to fighting for justice on behalf of the victims of war and ensuring that their stories were heard.
“This case is an extension of her legacy, and I think she’d be proud of what we achieved.”
Legal experts told the Telegraph the court could compel Syria to pay the reparations by freezing any remaining assets in the US territories or applying to freeze and then liquidate its assets elsewhere.
Henry Weisburg from Shearman & Sterling, the law firm which represented the Colvin family, said there have been successful asset recoveries in previous cases similar to this one, so they are confident of being able to recover the assets.
“This lawsuit was the first to ask a court to hold the Assad regime responsible for a war crime,” said Dixon Osburn, Executive Director of the Centre for Justice and Accountability.
“Now we are seeing a wave of similar cases, including most recently in Germany. Law alone will not end the war or the dictatorship. But it can guarantee that Syria’s war criminals will never enjoy impunity for the slaughter of civilians.”
The lawsuit alleged that Colvin, whose harrowing career is celebrated in the recent Golden Globe-nominated film A Private War, was in fact being tracked from neighbouring Lebanon after Syrian officials received information that she and the photographer Conroy were planning to smuggle into the war-torn country.
It claimed a plan to intercept her communication once she entered was formulated at the highest levels of the Syrian government by members of the Central Crisis Management Cell, a special war cabinet created by Assad to oversee the crackdown on the democratic opposition.
One of its senior members was Assad’s brother Maher, commander of the Syrian army’s 4th Armored Division.
Maher confirmed Colvin’s position with the help of a female informant on the ground in Baba Amr, as well as by tracing her satellite phone signal.
Some of the testimony was given by a Syrian intelligence defector, codenamed Ulysses. He revealed in court documents that senior regime officials celebrated after confirming Colvin’s death. One senior officer allegedly declared: “Marie Colvin was a dog and now she’s dead. Let the Americans help her now.”
Her family and friends have long argued that Colvin, who in her final report accused the Syrian government of deliberately killing “cold, starving civilians’ in the city of Homs, was assassinated.