A U.S. court Wednesday ordered the Syrian government to pay $302 million in damages for what a judge called the “targeted murder” of American war correspondent Marie Colvin in a 2012 artillery strike by Syrian forces on a media post.
Colvin, who was 56, was renowned for her reporting in war zones and recognizable for the black eye patch she wore after losing an eye in a grenade blast in Sri Lanka. Her life covering conflicts worldwide was the subject last year of a biography and the feature film “A Private War.”
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson granted the judgment against Syria in a 2016 civil case brought by Colvin’s sister and the sister’s children.
The nation did not respond in court to the lawsuit and a media contact provided Thursday by Syria’s United Nations mission did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
In a 36-page ruling, Jackson called the extrajudicial killing of a journalist “unconscionable.”
“By perpetrating a directed attack against the Media Center, Syria intended to intimidate journalists, inhibit newsgathering and the dissemination of information, and suppress dissent,” Jackson wrote.
“A targeted murder of an American citizen, whose courageous work was not only important, but vital to our understanding of war zones and of wars generally, is outrageous,” the court found, adding the family’s evidence established that forces overseen by President Bashar al-Assad carried out the attack in Baba Amr in Homs, not a third-party terrorist group.
The award included $300 million in punitive and $2.5 million in compensatory damages for pain and suffering.
In a statement released by her lawyers, Colvin’s sister, Cathleen Colvin said, “It’s been almost seven years since my sister was killed by the Assad Regime, and not a day goes by when I don’t think of her.”
The statement continued: “It is my greatest hope that the court’s ruling will lead to other criminal prosecutions, and serve as a deterrent against future attacks on the press and on civilians.”
Attorney Scott Gilmore with the Center for Justice & Accountability, who represented Colvin with Henry Weisburg of the Shearman & Sterling law firm, said the ruling sent a message to strongmen worldwide “at a time when journalists face unprecedented threats: . . . censorship through violence is a serious breach of international law.”
Dixon Osburn, executive director of the center, said Colvin’s case is the first of a wave of lawsuits, including recently in Germany, seeking to hold the Syrian government accountable for civilian victims killed in the country’s civil war.
Colvin, raised in Long Island, covered battlefields for the Sunday Times in London, reporting on conflicts in the Middle East, Kosovo and elsewhere.
In her ruling, Jackson noted Colvin was an “American war journalist hailed by many as the greatest war correspondent of her generation.” Colvin’s life story was told last year in Lindsey Hilsum’s biography, “In Extremis.”
The Colvin lawsuit is the latest in what has become a stream of claims by Americans seeking compensation for harms inflicted by the Syrian government, under terrorism and other exceptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.
That law generally bars U.S. citizens from suing foreign governments in domestic courts except for circumstances including terrorist acts or wrongful-death by state sponsors of terrorism as designated by the State Department. Syria is on the department’s list, and Colvin’s “extrajudicial killing” was a wrongful death under the statute, Jackson found.
While the vast majority of similar awards for terrorism victims have come against Iran — $46 billion since 1996 — collecting has been difficult for victims. That is especially true in the case of punitive damage awards — which make up nearly all of Colvin’s award — and are on weaker legal footing in courts than compensatory damage awards.
The last well-known successful enforcement came for the families of Olin “Jack” Armstrong and Jack Hensley, two U.S. military contractors kidnapped and beheaded by al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. An appeals court in 2014 allowed the families to collect about $80 million of a $413 million judgment against Syria from its assets parked at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Illinois.
Another source of compensation for victims with court judgments is the U.S. Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, approved by Congress in 2015 to compensate them and Americans held hostage during the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the 1979 revolution.
However, claims on the fund by 9/11 victims have nearly wiped out payments for others.
“The art form in making these cases something other than symbolic, to giving them real meaning, is in enforcement,” said Steven R. Perles, a lawyer who has specialized in reparations for American victims of terrorism. “In the cases of Syria, there’s really nowhere else to go now [for assets], there’s nothing here” in the United States, he said, except for smaller groups of assets where the legal costs of claiming would be an impediment.