Colvin v. Republic

Decision Date30 January 2019
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 16-1423 (ABJ)
PartiesCATHLEEN COLVIN, et al., Plaintiffs, v. SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

This case arises out of an intense artillery assault on the Baba Amr Media Center in Homs, Syria. Among those that died in the assault was Marie Colvin ("Colvin"), an American war journalist hailed by many as the greatest war correspondent of her generation, who was there covering the war between the Syrian government and rebel groups. Compl. [Dkt. # 1] ¶¶ 1, 21, 53. In their complaint, plaintiffs assert that Colvin was the victim of a targeted government policy to surveil, capture, and even kill journalists to prevent reporting on the Syrian government's suppression of the political opposition. Id. ¶¶ 43, 47, 79. In a comprehensive intelligence gathering effort, the Syrian government discovered that foreign journalists were broadcasting reports from a Media Center in Baba Amr. Id. ¶¶ 63-64. When the Syrian military uncovered the location of the Media Center, it launched an artillery attack against it, for the purpose of killing the journalists inside. Id. ¶¶ 65-71. Colvin was killed, as was a French photographer, Remi Ochlik. Id. ¶ 68. Other journalists, media personnel, and Syrian activists were wounded. Id.

Colvin's youngest sister, Cathleen Colvin,1 niece Justine Araya-Colvin, and nephew Christopher Araya-Colvin,2 (collectively, "plaintiffs") bring this case against the Syrian Arab Republic ("Syria"), asserting that Colvin's death constitutes an extrajudicial killing in violation of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act ("FSIA"). See Compl. ¶¶ 81-91. Plaintiffs effectuated service on February 6, 2017, see Affidavit Regarding Service [Dkt. # 28] ("Service Aff."), and on July 11, 2017 the Clerk of the Court entered default against Syria. See Clerk's Entry of Default [Dkt. # 31] ("Default Entry"). Now pending before the Court is plaintiffs' motion for default judgment. Because the Court finds that it has both personal and subject matter jurisdiction, and that plaintiffs have demonstrated with a satisfactory amount of evidence that Syria is liable for Colvin's death, the Court will grant plaintiffs' motion for default judgment and enter judgment in the amount of $302,511,836.00.


This section details the factual background leading up to the attack and Marie Colvin's death. The summary below is based on allegations in the complaint, reports submitted by experts on Syria,3 and declarations from individuals including defectors from the Syrian government, activists who have personal knowledge of the relevant events, and those present at the attack.4 The plaintiffs' briefing, with almost 1000 pages of attached exhibits, declarations, and expert reports, was comprehensive. Thus, an evidentiary hearing is unnecessary.

I. Syria's Political Climate in 2011
A. The Syrian Government's Response to the Arab Spring

Beginning in March 2011, Syria began to experience the effects of the "Arab Spring" - a wave of protests sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa against authoritarian governments. Brown Rpt. ¶¶ 24-26; Ford Rpt. ¶¶ 29-30; Compl. ¶ 25; Pls.' Mem. in Supp. of its Mot. for Default J. [Dkt. # 42-1] ("Pls.' Mem.") at 4. The Arab Spring prompted both a non-violent movement as well as an armed insurrection, calling for government change and an end to corruption. Pls.' Mem. at 4; Ford Rpt. ¶ 28.

The Syrian government responded with a strategy to quash the dissent using military and intelligence forces, coordinated by a group established by President Bashar al-Assad called the Central Crisis Management Cell ("CCMC"). Pls.' Mem. at 4; Brown Rpt. ¶¶ 44-45. The CCMC was the highest national security body in the Syrian government, and it was comprised of senior members of the government, included the Minister of Defense, Deputy Minister of Defense, Minister of Interior, heads of the four Syrian intelligence agencies, and Maher al-Assad, brother of President al-Assad and commander of the Fourth Division of the Syrian Army. Brown Rpt. ¶¶ 26, 46; Barakat Decl. ¶¶ 11-12. Operating out of Damascus, the CCMC gathered all of the military and intelligence reports from across Syria regarding the political opposition. Brown Rpt. ¶¶ 44, 47-48; Barakat Decl. ¶ 10, Compl. ¶ 27.

The CCMC used the reports it received from regional intelligence committees to inform President al-Assad's anti-opposition strategy. Barakat Decl. ¶ 15. Armed with information, the Syrian government engaged in widespread suppression of demonstrators and rebel groups, Compl. ¶ 28, and thousands were killed, detained, tortured, or kidnapped. Pls.' Mem. at 5; Ford Rpt. ¶¶ 37-40. The violence led to the formation of an armed opposition, called the Free Syrian Army ("FSA"), which consisted of civilians and defectors from the Syrian military and government. Ford Rpt. ¶ 36. By the end of 2011, the clash between the government and the FSA sent Syria into a full-scale armed conflict. Brown Rpt. ¶¶ 181-85; Kaye Rpt. ¶ 32.

B. Suppression of the Media and the Rise of the Independent Media

Suppression of traditional forms of media led to the rise of "independent media," in which "citizen journalists" disseminated news through social media networks. Salah Decl. ¶¶ 17-19; Kaye Rpt. ¶¶ 12-13. Babr Amr, a district in the city of Homs, was "the heart of the independent media movement." Pls.' Mem. at 6. There, a local activist named Khaled Abu Salah (a pseudonym he used to protect his identity) and a group of citizen journalists formed the Baba Amr Media Center, where they would document and broadcast demonstrations occurring throughout the country and the government's response, using proxy internet servers to hide their location. Salah Decl. ¶¶ 17-20; Doe Decl. ¶¶ 7-10. These individuals were not part of the formal opposition, and they did not participate in the hostilities. Salah Decl. ¶ 23.

The Syrian government considered media activists to be the biggest threat to the regime, because it was through the media that demonstrators could organize protests. Barakat Decl. ¶¶ 30-32. Thus, media activists and journalists became high priority targets. Ford Rpt. ¶¶ 62-64 (detailing examples of arrests, disappearances, and deaths of journalists in 2011 and 2012); Ulysses Decl. ¶ 14. In August 2011, the CCMC issued orders to government forces to "[l]aunch daily joint security-military campaigns" against "those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media and international organizations." Brown Rpt. ¶¶ 173-77. This policy resulted in a pattern and practice of targeting journalists and other media personnel, "subjecting them to . . . detention, torture, forced disappearance, extrajudicial killing, and other abuses." Kaye Rpt. ¶ 30; see Ford Rpt. ¶ 59; Ulysses Decl. ¶ 14.

C. The Government's Focus on Baba Amr and its Media Center

By the end of 2011, "Homs had become a key center" of the revolution, and "intelligence services in Homs were tasked with suppressing the opposition movement and ending the massive anti-government protests." Ulysses Decl. ¶ 8. The Syrian government formed a committee with the sole purpose of coordinating the military and intelligence operations against the opposition in Homs, called the Homs Military Security Committee ("HMSC").5 Id. ¶ 9. A leader of the HMSC, Major General Rafiq Shahadah, was involved in coordinating military and intelligence operations in the country's first battle of the Civil War: the siege of Baba Amr. Id. ¶ 24; Brown Rpt. ¶¶ 212-13. Baba Amr became a focal point in the war because of its "very active media center." Ulysses Decl. ¶ 25.

From December 2011 to February 2012, the CCMC directed the HMSC to isolate Baba Amr. Brown Rpt. ¶¶ 256-59 ("[T]he CCMC instructed that military and security commanders were to . . . wear[] down and drain[] the enemy."). Military surrounded the neighborhood, cutting off telecommunications, electricity, and food and water supplies. Ulysses Decl. ¶ 27. To protect themselves and civilians, rebel groups established a defensive perimeter around the neighborhood. Id. ¶¶ 26, 28; Doe Decl. ¶ 12; Brown Rpt. ¶¶ 252-54. The Syrian military shelled "the neighborhood on a daily basis with various forms of artillery, including . . . rocket launcher systems . . . and . . . mortars." Ulysses Decl. ¶¶ 29-30; see Salah Decl. ¶¶ 29-30 ("It was the most intense shelling I had ever experienced. It was constant."); Doe Decl. ¶ 16 ("The shelling was systematic, it happened every day."); Nouar Decl. ¶ 20 ("We visited this neighborhood every day, and every day we observed bombardments and sniper fire."). The level of violence was extreme - "bombs were being fired into densely populated areas," and snipers were "targeting and killing small children, women and other unarmed civilians." Brown Rpt. ¶¶ 261-62. The government's "official line was that Baba Amr was full of terrorists." Ulysses Decl. ¶ 32; see Nouar Decl. ¶¶ 27-32 (describing conversations with Syrian government officials where they referred to media activists as terrorists).

Through intelligence sources, such as drone surveillance and informants, the Syrian government learned that media activists had smuggled in satellite transmitters that gave them access to the internet, and foreign journalists in Baba Amr were "reporting on the siege, uploading videos to the Internet, and talking to international news agencies like CNN and al-Jazeera." Ulysses Decl. ¶ 33.

II. The Death of Marie Colvin
A. Marie Colvin and Her Assignment in Homs, Syria

Marie Colvin was a highly respected American war journalist, revered for her courage in reporting the humanitarian crises that result from war. Colvin Decl. ¶¶ 16-18. "Marie viewed it as her job to make the world aware of the impact war had on civilians, despite the risk. Occasionally, she also viewed it as her job to take action herself." Id. ¶ 18. She spent over twenty- five years writing for the British newspaper, The...

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