Judge awards $300M to family of journalist

By Ashraf Khalil
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A Washington judge has hit the Syrian government with a $302 million judgment over the 2012 death of journalist Marie Colvin, a longtime foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times.

In a verdict unsealed last Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson concluded the Syrian military had deliberately targeted the makeshift media center in the city of Homs where Colvin and other journalists were working. Sustained artillery barrages against the apartment building housing the media center killed Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik on Feb. 22, 2012.

Colvin, who had covered conflicts around the world for the British newspaper, wore a signature black patch over her left eye after being blinded by a grenade in Sri Lanka in 2001. The 2018 film "A Private War" was based on her life.

Lawyers for Colvin's family argued that her death was no accident. They hope to recover the $302 million verdict by targeting frozen Syrian government assets overseas. The Syrian government has never responded to the suit.

"The challenge now is going to be enforcing the judgment," said Scott Gilmore, lead counsel for the Colvin family. "The precedents show that it is possible to recover assets."

Gilmore said one of the main challenges of the lawsuit was to prove that Colvin's death wasn't caused by standard "fog of war" battlefield confusion. The suit used a mixture of eyewitness accounts, testimony from defectors and recovered internal Syrian government documents to prove the Syrian military had spent days trying to locate the apartment building that Colvin and several journalists were using as a home base.

"This wasn't a stray shell," Gilmore said. "The overwhelming weight of the evidence concluded that this was essentially an assassination."

Technically foreign governments are immune from jurisdiction in U.S. courts through the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. However, that immunity is lifted for alleged crimes against American citizens by governments classified as a "state sponsor of terrorism." Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian is using a similar approach to sue the Iranian government, which jailed him for more than 500 days on espionage charges.

Colvin's sister, Cathleen, said she had initially assumed Marie's death was a tragic accident, the kind that could happen to any journalist in a war zone. She decided to pursue a lawsuit after speaking with Paul Conroy, a photographer who was working with Marie Colvin and was injured in the same shelling. Conroy, a veteran of the British Army's Royal Artillery, told her the media center wasn't hit by haphazard shelling but by "bracketing," a recognized artillery technique used to home in on a specific target.

"It was part of the government's strategy in putting down the uprising," Cathleen Colvin said. "They prioritized taking out the journalists."

Colvin said she doesn't know if the suit will ever succeed in retrieving any of that $302 million. But she hopes it will at least be a long-term inconvenience and embarrassment to President Bashar Assad's government.

"I don't have any illusions that this will have any effect on Assad's life," she said. "Hopefully, this will be some sort of thorn in his side for decades."

Published: Mon, Feb 04, 2019