U.S. Court Finds Syria Responsible for Killing American Journalist Marie Colvin

The decision marks the first time in the Syrian conflict that a court has declared Assad government forces responsible for deliberately attacking civilians.

Marie Colvin, American-born, London-based British war correspondent, at the Books, Borders and Bikes festival at Traquair House, Innerleithen, Peebleshire, Scotland, August 20, 2011. (Writer Pictures via AP Images)
Journalist Marie Colvin in Scotland on Aug. 20, 2011. Photo: Writer Pictures via AP Images

A federal judge in Washington, D.C. has ordered the Syrian government to pay $302 million in damages for the murder of journalist Marie Colvin in a 2012 artillery strike. The decision, issued on Wednesday, marks the first time in the seven-year conflict that a court has declared Syrian forces loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad responsible for deliberately attacking civilians.

“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 [multiplies] the impact on the responsible state is warranted,” wrote Judge Amy Berman Jackson.

The Syrian government did not respond to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Colvin’s niece and nephew, leading to a default judgement. The suit followed from a six-year investigation by the Center for Justice and Accountability, which unearthed testimony and documentary evidence detailing how Assad’s commanders tracked and killed Colvin and her colleague, French photojournalist Remi Ochlik, on the morning of February 22, 2012 in Homs, Syria. Colvin was among the few Western journalists working from Homs, where she reported on the government’s use of rocket and artillery strikes against the civilian population trapped in the city. Also hurt in the attack that killed Colvin and Ochlik were photographer Paul Conroy, journalist Edith Bouvier, and media activist Khaled Abu Salah.

Undated  photo of French photographer Remi Ochlik who died Wednesday Feb. 22, 2012  in Homs, Syria.  French photojournalist Remi Ochlik  and an American journalist Marie Colvin working for a British newspaper were killed Wednesday by Syrian government shelling of the opposition stronghold of Homs, France's government said.(AP Photo/Julien de Rosa)

An undated photo of French photographer Remi Ochlik, who died on Feb. 22, 2012 in Homs, Syria.

Photo: Julien de Rosa/AP

The Assad government will almost certainly never pay the damages, but the finding establishes a significant precedent for the press, according to Scott Gilmore, the attorney who investigated and litigated the case. The ruling “recognizes that attacks designed to intimidate journalists and stifle reporting cause broad social harm and merit severe condemnation,” he told The Intercept. “The Colvin case joins Terry Anderson’s suit against Iran (circa 2000) as twin precedents establishing the specific harms to free expression when journalists are killed or detained.”

A representative at the Syrian delegation to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. In a 2016 interview with NBC News, Assad blamed Colvin for her own death.

The judge ordered $11,836 to cover funeral expenses, a $2.5 million solatium payment to Colvin’s sister, Cathleen, and $300 million in punitive damages; however, Jackson rejected a request for $2,370,640 in lost income as “too high.”

While recouping the full damages may be difficult for the family, a portion can be sought from the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, created by Congress in 2015 to compensate survivors of terrorist attacks. The fund has paid out $800 million in claims to date.

The ruling comes as the Trump administration seeks to exit Syria and as Assad edges his way out of political isolation, beginning to re-establish diplomatic ties severed during the war. The U.S. government has previously negotiated victim compensation as part of re-establishing diplomatic relations. In 2008, for instance, Libya set aside $1.5 billion to compensate the surviving family members of Pan Am Flight 103, which was destroyed in a bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Correction: February 2, 2019, 8:24 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a federal court ordered the Syrian government to pay damages for the murders of both Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. The ruling only found Syria liable for Colvin’s death.

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