Four years ago, veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin, an American reporter for a British newspaper, was killed in Syria.
Now her family has filed a lawsuit alleging that high-ranking Syrian officials deliberately killed the award-winning reporter.
Colvin, 56, died in shelling after reporting from Homs, a city held by rebels and under attack from government forces. The young French photographer Rémi Ochlik was also killed. The two had been working in a makeshift media center in Baba Amr, the district of Homs under the heaviest shelling. Two other Western journalists were wounded, but survived, as more than 10 rockets destroyed the media center.
The lawsuit alleges Colvin was “assassinated by Syrian government agents as she reported on the suffering of civilians.”
Lawyers say it’s the first U.S. case brought against the Syrian regime over its conduct in the 5-years-running civil war.
“It’s extremely important that we get the full story,” says Scott Gilmore, an attorney with the Center for Justice and Accountability, a U.S.-based human rights group that filed the suit on Saturday in a Washington, D.C. federal district court on behalf of Colvin’s family.
“It’s been a question that has been on everyone’s mind ever since Feb. 22, 2012,” he says. “How did it happen and why did it happen? Who was responsible?”
Colvin was an intrepid war reporter with decades of experience in every major conflict zone in the world. She was known for her personal style and a signature black patch over her left eye, lost in a harrowing grenade attack in Sri Lanka in 2001.
Smuggled into Syria with photographer Paul Conroy in February 2012, Colvin broadcast live TV reports at the media center for the BBC, CNN, and the British broadcaster Channel 4. Her powerful accounts of besieged civilians, starving women and wounded children undermined government attempts to control the coverage of clashes. Thousands of civilians were trapped in the neighborhood of Baba Amr along with rebel fighters.
Syrian media activists uploaded daily videos of civilian suffering, which the government could dismiss. But a high-profile Western war correspondent raised the profile of the conflict and undermined government claims that Syrian civilians were dying at the hands of an armed insurgency.
In Colvin’s final broadcast for CNN, she challenged the Syrian government’s claims that the army was only shelling insurgents. “It’s a complete and utter lie they’re only going after terrorists,” Colvin told Anderson Cooper. “The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”
The CJA case alleges that Syrian officials tracked Colvin’s location through a web of informants and electronic surveillance. On the night of her final broadcast, Gilmore says, Syrian intelligence officials intercepted broadcast signals to get Colvin’s coordinates.
“It was a match with the informant. They launched the attack the following morning.”
Gilmore, the lead investigator, has worked on the case for four years, tracking down eyewitnesses to build the case. He says his witness list includes media activists as well as government and military defectors, and “testimonies of observers and participants,” many of whom are now out of Syria.
At the time of Colvin’s death, Syrian authorities insisted they were not aware she had entered the country. Syria’s information minister Adnan Mahmud urged “all foreign journalists who entered Syria illegally to report to the nearest immigration office to legalize their presence.”
A Perfect Storm of Jurisdiction
The CJA lawsuit is the first case seeking to hold the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad responsible for war crimes.
“It is a jurisdictional perfect storm,” says Gilmore. In most cases, a sovereign government is immune from prosecution in a U.S. court. But a notable exception is “when a designated state sponsor of terrorism has murdered a U.S. citizen,” according to Gilmore.
The lawsuit was filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a federal law that permits victims to sue designated state sponsors of terrorism. There are three countries the State Department currently lists: Syria, Sudan and Iran.
Syrian officials have not yet responded to the Colvin case. The Syrian Arab Republic has been named as the defendant in the complaint. If the Syrian government chooses not to respond, then the D.C. federal judge will conduct a default hearing. Gilmore says he wants a public hearing of the evidence he’s amassed.
“The regime wanted to wage a war without witness against the democratic opposition. To do that, they needed to neutralize the media,” he says. He intends to prove the case in court.