Syria Found Liable for the Death of War Correspondent Marie Colvin

Judge Amy Berman Jackson, of the D.C. District Court, has unsealed a $302 million judgment against the Syrian Arab Republic, finding it liable for the assassination of intrepid journalist Maria Colvin in Syria in 2012. The case was filed in 2016 by Marie Colvin’s sister Cathleen Colvin and her three children, through counsel Scott Gilmore, Shearman & Sterling LLP, and the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA). This was a default judgment; although Syria did not appear to defend against the suit, plaintiffs were still obliged to establish their claim and right to relief by evidence satisfactory to the court to reflect the fact that the defendant is a sovereign nation. Thus, plaintiffs’ uncontroverted allegations were deemed to be supported by documentary and affidavit evidence. For background, I’ve covered this civil suit as well as the war crime of targeting journalists on these pages in the past (see here and here).

The judgment (still partially redacted to protect the identities of some sources) offers a stinging indictment of the Assad regime. It notes that the systemic suppression of the media during the revolution led to the rise of citizen journalists, who disseminated news about the conflict through social media networks and smuggled satellite transmitters, the locations of which were partially hidden through the use of proxy servers. The Assad regime considered media activists to pose an existential threat because they were helping to organize protests and reporting on the government’s abuses. Accordingly, the regime’s Central Crisis Management Cell ordered government forces to launch “daily joint security-military campaigns” against “those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media and international organizations.” This resulted in a policy and practice of targeting journalists and other media personnel for arbitrary detention, disappearances, torture, and summary execution, as noted by David Kaye—the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to  Freedom of Opinion and Expression—in his expert report to the court.

According to the judgment, Marie Colvin—“hailed by many as the greatest war correspondent of her generation”—traveled to Syria in February 2012 to cover the war via a smugglers’ route. She made her way to Baba Amr, in Homs city, which was the heart of the independent media movement. A defector, code-named Ulysses, offered testimony that the government had made it a priority to eliminate the Baba Amr Media Center. To this end, the government was intercepting communications coming out of the local neighborhood to try to pinpoint the Center’s precise coordinates. A network of intelligence personnel and informants intercepted Colvin’s final live broadcasts in which she charged the Syrian army with shelling a city full of cold, starving civilians. Having effectively located the Media Center, the Army began a new shelling campaign, “bracketing” the location of the satellite uplink. Journalists attempted to evacuate the area, assuming their location had been identified. A blast killed Colvin and French journalist Remi Ochlik as they tried to escape. After the attack, evidence revealed that the security officials celebrated Colvin’s death. Homs Security Chief Major General Sahadah stated: “Marie Colvin was a dog and now she’s dead. Let the Americans help her now.” He was rewarded with a new car from President Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad, and was later promoted to head of the Syrian Military Intelligence Department.

Given all the evidence in the record, the court determined that the Syrian government launched the attack that resulted in Colvin’s extrajudicial killing (as defined by the Torture Victim Protection Act) and the subsequent harm to the surviving plaintiffs. All told, the evidence “shows that officials at the highest level of the Syrian government carefully planned and executed the artillery assault on the Baba Amr Media Center for the specific purpose of killing the journalists inside.” The attack was timed after it received information as to the location of the Media Center and was consistent with “Syria’s long-standing policy of violence towards media activists.”

The court awarded $2.5 million in solatium damages (for pain and suffering) and $300 million in punitive damages based upon the unconscionable nature of the regime’s conduct, the grave harm to the plaintiffs, the imperative of deterrence, and the wealth of the defendant. The fact that Colvin was specifically targeted for her profession (unlike some victims of terrorism) for the purpose of silencing journalists justified an elevated award ($150 million is typically awarded per victim of terrorism). The court noted that “the murder of journalists acting in their professional capacity could have a chilling effect on reporting such events worldwide,” which warranted punitive damages to vindicate the shared global interest in the collection and dissemination of information about armed conflicts. Indeed, the court noted that

By perpetuating a directed attack against the Media Center, Syria intended to intimidate journalists inhibit newsgathering and the dissemination of information, and suppress dissent. … 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.

Additional economic damages will be forthcoming following an expert analysis of Colvin’s projected earnings minus her consumption costs.

Upon learning of the verdict, Cat Colvin, Colvin’s sister and the lead plaintiff, stated:

My heart goes out to the families of the many thousands of victims of the Syrian conflict. It is my greatest hope that the court’s ruling today 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 today.

Indeed, a number of other lawsuits in domestic courts are pending in courts within Europe and elsewhere. I’ve discussed these cases here in connection with a larger project on Justice for Syria. 

About the Author(s)

Beth Van Schaack

Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights, Stanford Law School; Former Deputy to the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues in the U.S. State Department. All views are her own. Member of the editorial board of Just Security. Follow her on Twitter (@BethVanSchaack).