Today, the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) and co-counsel Shearman & Sterling LLP filed a lawsuit against the government of Syria for the murder of American journalist Marie Colvin. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of Marie Colvin’s sister, Cathleen Colvin; her niece, Justine Araya-Colvin; and other surviving family members. Colvin was killed on February 22, 2012, when Syrian forces intercepted her broadcasts in the besieged city of Homs and shelled her position with artillery.
CJA’s lawsuit is the first case seeking to hold the regime of President Bashar al-Assad responsible for war crimes.
A renowned correspondent with the Sunday Times of London, Colvin traveled to Syria in
February 2012 to cover the siege of Homs with British photographer Paul Conroy and Syrian
interpreter Wael al-Omar. Homs at the time was an opposition stronghold. It was also a proving ground for the Assad regime’s tactics of siege, starvation, and shelling civilian areas. In her final broadcast from Homs, Marie Colvin told CNN’s Anderson Cooper: “It’s a complete and utter lie they’re only going after terrorists. The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”
Based on witness accounts and documentary evidence, the complaint alleges that the murder of Marie Colvin was designed to silence her and other media critics of Assad. “Marie Colvin was killed for exposing the Assad regime’s slaughter of innocent civilians to the world,” said CJA attorney Scott Gilmore, who led the investigation. “The regime wanted to wage a war without witness against the democratic opposition. To do that, they needed to neutralize the media.”
“This case is about carrying on Marie’s work,” said plaintiff Cathleen Colvin, Marie Colvin’s
sister. “We are seeking truth and justice not just for her, but for thousands of innocent Syrians tortured or killed under the Assad dictatorship. We hope our case will clear a path to bring those responsible to justice.”
According to evidence obtained by CJA through four years of investigation, senior members of the Assad regime conspired to kill Marie Colvin and other journalists who defied a Syrian media ban, after tracking them down through a web of informants and electronic surveillance. The alleged conspirators include Ali Mamluk, Director of Syria’s National Intelligence Bureau; Rafiq Shahadah, former Director of Military Intelligence; and Major General Issam Zahreddine of the Republican Guard.
Late at night on February 21, 2012, an informant’s tip led Rafiq Shahadah, a Brigadier General in Syrian Military Intelligence, to the hidden, makeshift media center where Colvin made her final satellite broadcast. Colvin’s broadcast signal was intercepted, corroborated by informants, and used to target her. The next morning, Syrian artillery fired at her position. Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed. British photographer Paul Conroy, Syrian activist Wael al-Omar, and French journalist Edith Bouvier were injured.
The murder of Colvin was part of a pattern of attacks on the press. On February 5, 2012, video blogger Khaled abu Salah was targeted by artillery in Homs while giving an interview to Al-
Jazeera. On February 16, 2012, Syrian intelligence forces raided the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, subjecting journalist and human rights lawyer Mazen Darwish and his staff to a three-year ordeal of torture and detention. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), who has assisted the Colvin family and other survivors seeking justice, Syria is the world’s most dangerous country for journalists: around 200 journalists and citizen-journalists (51 journalists and 144 citizen-journalists) have been killed since March 2011.
Marie Colvin’s commitment to war reporting was undaunted. Her career as a frontline war
correspondent spanned 25 years in war zones from Iraq to Chechnya and Sierra Leone to Sri Lanka, where she was blinded in one eye by shrapnel. “Covering a war means going into places torn by chaos, destruction, and death and trying to bear witness,” she said in a 2010 speech. “We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.”
The lawsuit was filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a federal law that permits victims to sue designated state-sponsors of terrorism, like Syria, for the murder of U.S. citizens.
As required by law, the plaintiffs have given the Syrian government an opportunity to arbitrate claims for war crimes and other violations of international law in The Hague, before the Permanent Court of Arbitration. “U.S. courts have broad jurisdiction against state-sponsors of extrajudicial killings like that of Marie Colvin, and we expect to prove that this was a targeted slaying by the Syrian government,” said Henry Weisburg, a partner at Shearman & Sterling.
“This is the first war-crimes case against the Assad regime,” said CJA executive director Dixon Osburn. “But it won’t be the last. Building a lasting peace in Syria will require accountability for those on all sides of the conflict who are responsible for atrocities. CJA will continue to prepare dossiers of evidence and bring perpetrators to justice.”
About the Center for Justice & Accountability
CJA is a San Francisco-based human rights organization. CJA’s mission is to deter torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other severe human rights abuses around the world through innovative litigation, policy, and transitional justice strategies. CJA partners with victims and survivors in pursuit of truth, justice, and redress.
About Shearman & Sterling LLP
Shearman & Sterling is a global law firm with approximately 850 lawyers and more than 20 offices in the world’s major commercial centers. The firm is a leader in mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, financial regulatory, compensation and corporate governance, project development and finance, complex business litigation and international arbitration, asset management and tax. Visit www.shearman.com.
Learn more about Marie Colvin at www.mariecolvin.org