Family of Slain U.S. Journalist Sues Assad Government

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PC: Paul Conroy

The San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability and co-counsel Shearman & Sterling LLP filed a lawsuit against the Syrian government on July 9 for the murder of American journalist Marie Colvin. The suit was filed on behalf of Colvin’s sister, Cathleen Colvin, niece, Justine Araya-Colvin, and other surviving family members. Marie Colvin was killed on February 22, 2012, when her broadcasts to CNN and the BBC were intercepted by regime forces and her position was shelled by artillery fire.

This case represents the first to attempt to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime responsible for war conduct under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a federal law that allows individuals to sue state sponsors of terrorism for the murder of U.S. citizens. The lawsuit was filed through the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.

The complaint names nine military officers and leader Khaled al-Fares in the plot to assassinate Colvin as a part of the regime’s larger, structural crackdown on professional and citizen journalists attempting to cover the ongoing conflict. The Assad regime, according to the lawsuit and human rights groups, developed a strategy to impose a media blackout on the war by killing or apprehending journalists whose work was reaching worldwide audiences. According to press advocacy groups, at least 200 journalists have been killed since the outbreak of the civil war and hundreds more have gone missing.

Colvin was a renowned war correspondent who had spent nearly 26 years covering violent conflicts from Iraq to Sri Lanka. In 2012 she and other journalists, including French photojournalist Remi Ochlik, who died in the same attack, snuck into Syria to cover the conflict in the besieged city of Homs. In the densely populated neighborhood of Baba Amr the journalists set up an improvised media center in an apartment building and began broadcasting.

On February 21, Colvin broadcast an account of the Syrian people’s suffering, saying to CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper that it was “a complete and utter lie that they’re only going after terrorists. The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.” According to the case, Syrian government officials, with the held of a female informant, intercepted the broadcast and pinpointed the location of the media center. Hours later, what had been a random assault on the entire neighborhood became much more targeted. Paul Convoy, a New York Times photographer and former British artillery officer who survived the attack on the media center, described in an interview with the Washington Post the “perfect artillery work” used to target the center, saying “there was nothing random about that attack.”

As an alternative to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs have given the Syrian government the opportunity to arbitrate claims for war crimes and other violations of international law in The Hague, before the Permanent Court of Arbitration.