Four years ago, veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin, an American reporter for a British newspaper, was killed in Syria.
Now her family has filed a lawsuit alleging that high-ranking Syrian officials deliberately killed the award-winning reporter.
Colvin, 56, died in shelling after reporting from Homs, a city held by rebels and under attack from government forces. The young French photographer Rémi Ochlik was also killed. The two had been working in a makeshift media center in Baba Amr, the district of Homs under the heaviest shelling. Two other Western journalists were wounded, but survived, as more than 10 rockets destroyed the media center.
The lawsuit alleges Colvin was "assassinated by Syrian government agents as she reported on the suffering of civilians."
Lawyers say it's the first U.S. case brought against the Syrian regime over its conduct in the 5-years-running civil war.
"It's extremely important that we get the full story," says Scott Gilmore, an attorney with the Center for Justice and Accountability, a U.S.-based human rights group that filed the suit on Saturday in a Washington, D.C. federal district court on behalf of Colvin's family.
"It's been a question that has been on everyone's mind ever since Feb. 22, 2012," he says. "How did it happen and why did it happen? Who was responsible?"
Colvin was an intrepid war reporter with decades of experience in every major conflict zone in the world. She was known for her personal style and a signature black patch over her left eye, lost in a harrowing grenade attack in Sri Lanka in 2001.
Smuggled into Syria with photographer Paul Conroy in February 2012, Colvin broadcast live TV reports at the media center for the BBC, CNN, and the British broadcaster Channel 4. Her powerful accounts of besieged civilians, starving women and wounded children undermined government attempts to control the coverage of clashes. Thousands of civilians were trapped in the neighborhood of Baba Amr along with rebel fighters.
Syrian media activists uploaded daily videos of civilian suffering, which the government could dismiss. But a high-profile Western war correspondent raised the profile of the conflict and undermined government claims that Syrian civilians were dying at the hands of an armed insurgency.
In Colvin's final broadcast for CNN, she challenged the Syrian government's claims that the army was only shelling insurgents. "It's a complete and utter lie they're only going after terrorists," Colvin told Anderson Cooper. "The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians."
The CJA case alleges that Syrian officials tracked Colvin's location through a web of informants and electronic surveillance. On the night of her final broadcast, Gilmore says, Syrian intelligence officials intercepted broadcast signals to get Colvin's coordinates.
"It was a match with the informant. They launched the attack the following morning."
Gilmore, the lead investigator, has worked on the case for four years, tracking down eyewitnesses to build the case. He says his witness list includes media activists as well as government and military defectors, and "testimonies of observers and participants," many of whom are now out of Syria.
At the time of Colvin's death, Syrian authorities insisted they were not aware she had entered the country. Syria's information minister Adnan Mahmud urged "all foreign journalists who entered Syria illegally to report to the nearest immigration office to legalize their presence."
A Perfect Storm of Jurisdiction
The CJA lawsuit is the first case seeking to hold the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad responsible for war crimes.
"It is a jurisdictional perfect storm," says Gilmore. In most cases, a sovereign government is immune from prosecution in a U.S. court. But a notable exception is "when a designated state sponsor of terrorism has murdered a U.S. citizen," according to Gilmore.
The lawsuit was filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a federal law that permits victims to sue designated state sponsors of terrorism. There are three countries the State Department currently lists: Syria, Sudan and Iran.
Syrian officials have not yet responded to the Colvin case. The Syrian Arab Republic has been named as the defendant in the complaint. If the Syrian government chooses not to respond, then the D.C. federal judge will conduct a default hearing. Gilmore says he wants a public hearing of the evidence he's amassed.
"The regime wanted to wage a war without witness against the democratic opposition. To do that, they needed to neutralize the media," he says. He intends to prove the case in court.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In February of 2012, American foreign correspondent Marie Colvin spoke to CNN from Homs, Syria. She was describing some of the violence, including the story of a baby killed by government shelling there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARIE COLVIN: That baby probably will move more people to think, what is going on and why is no one stopping this murder in Homs that is happening every day?
MARTIN: That was her final broadcast. Colvin herself was killed by artillery fire hours later. Now her family has filed a lawsuit alleging that high-ranking Syrian officials deliberately killed the award-winning reporter. Lawyers say it's the first U.S. case brought against the Syrian regime over its conduct in the civil war there. The suit says Syria targeted Colvin to silence her and other media critics of the regime. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now to talk about this. Deb, Marie Colvin was a noted journalist with a British newspaper, The Sunday Times. What can you tell us about the details of how she died?
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Well, it was in artillery fire. She was working out of a makeshift media center in the city of Homs. She was an intrepid war correspondent. She'd been smuggled into the besieged city a few days earlier. Her high-profile reports of civilian suffering undermined the Syrian government's attempt to impose a media blackout on that siege. And so the suit filed on Saturday alleges that she was deliberately killed at the orders of Syrian government officials.
MARTIN: Of course, this civil war in Syria is ongoing now. So what has that meant for her family's legal team? I mean, how have they been able to gather evidence to show what they allege, that Colvin was targeted?
AMOS: Well, the investigation has been carried out by the Center for Justice and Accountability. It's a human rights organization based in San Francisco. Scott Gilmore, the lead attorney, has worked on it for four years. What he's done is he's gathered testimonies. He says it's based on high-level government defectors, captured official documents - you know, a lot of Syrians are now out of the country. And the complaint lays out a chain of events that leads to Colvin's death. Nine top Syrian officials have been named, including the Syrian president's brother.
MARTIN: So as you know, human rights groups and Syrian opposition have been trying to get a case against the Syrian regime in international courts for a long time. This is this one case about this one foreign correspondent, and it's taking place in a U.S. federal court. So what are the chances of getting some kind of judgment against Syria in this case?
AMOS: Rachel, this is the perfect storm of jurisdiction. You know, in most cases a sovereign state can't be prosecuted in a U.S. court. But here is a notable exception, and it's under the Foreign Sovereignties Immunity Act. And it's when a state sponsor of terrorism kills a U.S. citizen. And the State Department listed Syria in 1979. Marie Colvin is a U.S. citizen. This is the first case alleging war crimes against the Syrian government. And how it works is that even if the government never comes to court to answer these charges, a federal judge can still render a judgment based on the evidence. So the lawyers and the Colvin family say that what they're looking for in the judge's ruling is the official narrative of what happened and who was responsible.
MARTIN: NPR's Deborah Amos. Thanks so much, Deb.
AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.