A FEDERAL JUDGE in Washington, D.C. has ordered the Syrian government to pay $302 million in damages for the murders of journalists Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik in a 2012 artillery strike. The decision, issued on Wednesday, marks the first time in the seven-year conflict that a court has declared Syrian forces loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad responsible for deliberately attacking civilians.
“A targeted murder of an American citizen, whose courageous work was not only important, but vital to our understanding of warzones and of wars generally, is outrageous, and therefore a punitive damages award that [multiplies] the impact on the responsible state is warranted,” wrote Judge Amy Berman Jackson.
The Syrian government did not respond to the lawsuit filed on behalf of Colvin’s niece and nephew, leading to a default judgement. The suit followed from a six-year investigation by the Center for Justice and Accountability, which unearthed testimony and documentary evidence detailing how Assad’s commanders tracked and killed Colvin and her colleague on the morning of February 22, 2012 in Homs, Syria. Colvin was among the few Western journalists working from Homs, where she reported on the government’s use of rocket and artillery strikes against the civilian population trapped in the city. Also hurt in the attack that killed Colvin and Ochlik, a French photojournalist, were photographer Paul Conroy, journalist Edith Bouvier, and media activist Khaled Abu Salah.
The Assad government will almost certainly never pay the damages, but the finding establishes a significant precedent for the press, according to Scott Gilmore, the attorney who investigated and litigated the case. The ruling “recognizes that attacks designed to intimidate journalists and stifle reporting cause broad social harm and merit severe condemnation,” he told The Intercept. “The Colvin case joins Terry Anderson’s suit against Iran (circa 2000) as twin precedents establishing the specific harms to free expression when journalists are killed or detained.”
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