A United States court has found Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s government culpable in the death of American foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, ordering a $302.5m judgement for what it called an “unconscionable” attack that targeted journalists.
In a verdict unsealed late on Wednesday night, US District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson concluded the Syrian military had deliberately targeted the makeshift media centre in the city of Homs where Colvin and other journalists were working on February 22, 2012.
Sustained artillery barrages against the apartment building housing the media centre killed Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik.
“She was specifically targeted because of her profession, for the purpose of silencing those reporting on the growing opposition movement in the country,” Jackson wrote.
Colvin, a 56-year-old war correspondent working for Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper when she died, wore a signature black patch over her left eye after being blinded by a grenade in Sri Lanka in 2001. The 2018 film “A Private War” was based on her life.
Lawyers for Colvin’s family hope to recover the $302m settlement by targeting frozen Syrian government assets overseas.
“The challenge now is going to be enforcing the judgement,” said Scott Gilmore, lead counsel for the Colvin family. “The precedents show that it is possible to recover assets.”
‘Taking out journalists’
Gilmore said one of the main challenges of the lawsuit had been to prove that Colvin’s death wasn’t caused by standard “fog of war” battlefield confusion.
Lawyers included as evidence a copy of an August 2011 fax that they said was sent from Syria’s National Security Bureau instructing security bodies to launch military and intelligence campaigns against “those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media and international organizations”.
In her ruling, Jackson wrote that the day before the attack, an informant provided the location of the media centre to the Syrian government. That night, Colvin had given live interviews to the US outlet, CNN and two British broadcasters – BBC and Channel 4.
There is evidence that Syrian officials celebrated after the attack, Jackson added.
The Syrian government was not involved in defending the lawsuit.
Foreign governments are immune from jurisdiction in US courts through the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, but that immunity is lifted for alleged crimes against American citizens by governments classified as a “state sponsor of terrorism”.
Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian is using a similar approach to sue the Iranian government, which jailed him for more than 500 days on an espionage charge.
Colvin’s sister, Cathleen, said she had initially assumed Marie’s death was a tragic accident, the kind that could happen to any journalist in a war zone.
She decided to pursue a lawsuit after speaking with Paul Conroy, a photographer who was working with Marie Colvin and was injured in the same shelling.
Conroy, a veteran of the British Army’s Royal Artillery, told her the media centre wasn’t hit by haphazard shelling but by “bracketing”, a recognised artillery technique used to locate a specific target.
“It was part of the government’s strategy in putting down the uprising,” Cathleen Colvin said. “They prioritised taking out the journalists.”
Colvin said she doesn’t know if the suit will ever succeed in retrieving any of that $302.5m. But she hopes it will at least be a long-term inconvenience and embarrassment to Assad’s government.
“I don’t have any illusions that this will have any effect on Assad’s life,” she said. “Hopefully, this will be some sort of thorn in his side for decades.”
In a 2016 interview with NBC News quoted by CNN, Assad said Colvin herself was at fault in her death.
“It’s a war and she came illegally to Syria, she worked with the terrorists, and because she came illegally, she’s responsible of everything that befell her,” Assad said.