Family of Journalist Slain in Syria Awarded $302 Million

(Photo via Center for Justice & Accountability)

WASHINGTON (CN) – On the morning of Feb. 22, 2012, renowned war reporter Marie Colvin awoke to the sound of rockets in Homs, Syria.

Staying in a press hideout, Colvin was used to the sound of shelling in the neighborhood that had become a key battleground in the country’s civil war. But the whistles of the rockets and the nearness of the strikes told the people staying at the building that this time something was different.

Colvin, holding hands with a French photographer, ran from the building to a shelter across the street, but a rocket hit the front of the media center before they made it to safety, killing them both.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Washington found the Syrian government liable for Colvin’s death and ordered the government pay more than $302 million in damages to members of her family.

“By perpetrating a direct attack against the media center, Syria intended to intimidate journalists, inhibit newsgathering and the dissemination of information and suppress dissent,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson wrote in a 36-page opinion. “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, and therefore a punitive damages award that multiples the impact on the responsible state is warranted.”

Colvin, a New York-born journalist who had covered numerous foreign wars during her 25 years working for the British paper The Sunday Times, arrived in Syria in February 2012 to chronicle the civil war that had broken out in the country in the wake of the Arab Spring protests, according to the opinion, which cites declarations from people who survived the attack.

Known for an eye patch she donned after being blinded by a grenade in Sri Lanka, Colvin and a photographer enlisted the help of the Syrian Free Army and a man named Wael Fayez al-Omar to get to Homs, a flashpoint in the conflict.

They arrived on Feb. 16 and set up in the Baba Amr Media Center, which was housed in an apartment building and gave foreign reporters shelter while they covered the conflict. The Syrian government had placed a special focus on the neighborhood because of the media center, subjecting it to daily shelling, according to the opinion.

Despite the constant barrage of bombs falling around the neighborhood, Colvin went out of the building to talk with locals, according to the opinion.

But at the same time, the Syrian government was using spies and devices capable of intercepting broadcasts to pin down the location of the media center, intent on silencing it. On Feb. 21, one of the government’s informants told Syrian military officers where the media center was located.

The bombing that killed Colvin started the next morning.

The attack lasted more than 17 minutes and killed Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik. Two other journalists were also injured in the attack.

The Syrian government celebrated the bombing, with one officer calling Colvin “a dog.” President Bashar al-Assad’s brother gave the officer a new car to reward him for the attack, and the officer later received a promotion, according to the opinion.

Colvin’s sister, niece and nephew filed a lawsuit in July 2016 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking to hold Syria liable for the attack under a law that allows U.S. courts to hear cases against foreign governments under certain conditions.

After finding Colvin’s death amounted to an extrajudicial killing caused by Syria, Jackson determined Colvin’s surviving family is entitled to punitive and other damages. 

Colvin’s family were represented by the Center for Justice & Accountability and the law firm Shearman & Sterling.

Reacting to the verdict, Syria’s deputy Parliament Speaker Najdat Anzour told the Associated Press on Friday that the court relied on “fortune telling” rather than an investigation.

“We don’t know who killed her,” Anzour said, while also pushing an allegation that Colvin entered the country illegally.

U.S. President Donald Trump “wants to build a wall with Mexico to prevent people from entering illegally to America,” Anzour said. “At the same time there are some who want to get compensation for a person who entered a country illegally.”

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