Assad government held liable by a US court for Marie Colvin’s death

On 22 February 2012, war correspondent Marie Colvin was killed when the media centre from where she was reporting in Homs, came under rocket attack. Former SRT grantee, Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), led a five-year investigation into her death, and in 2016, they filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Washington, DC against the Syrian government on behalf of Marie Colvin’s sister Cathleen Colvin and her three children, with the support of co-counsel Sherman and Sterling LLP.

The investigation looked into Colvin’s killing but also the wider history and policies of Syrian government targeting and killing journalists. The investigation revealed that Colvin was specifically targeted by the Syrian government, who managed to attain her whereabouts through intercepted satellite calls and informants, and then deliberately ordered the artillery assault on the media centre where she was working.

CJA and Sherman and Sterling were able to litigate against the Syrian government and file the wrongful death complaint under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows claimants to sue designated state-sponsors of terrorism, such as the government of Syria, for the extrajudicial killing of US citizens in US courts for compensation and punitive damages.

The Court awarded $300m in punitive damages, and also ordered Syria to pay $2.5m in compensation to Colvin’s sister and $11,836 in funeral expenses. The amount of punitive damages was a higher figure than usual due to the fact that Marie was targeted as a journalist. Whilst it is unlikely that the Syrian government will voluntarily pay the sum of money directly, the court could freeze any Syrian assets held in the US and liquidate them.

When ruling on the damages, Judge Amy Berman Jackson declared that, “by perpetrating a directed attack against the media centre, 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.”

Cathleen Colvin, Marie’s sister, said, “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.”

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