Family of slain journalist Marie Colvin sues Syria for her death

The family of intrepid newswoman Marie Colvin, who died in a rocket attack on the besieged Syrian city of Homs in 2012, is suing the Assad regime for assassinating her. It’s not revenge they are seeking in court papers filed in federal court but, rather, accountability. William Brangham reports.

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    Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria since the conflict began there nearly five-and-a-half years ago.

    Few who have lost loved ones have any hope of gaining justice for their deaths. But the family of Marie Colvin, an American journalist killed in Syria in 2012, with French photographer Remi Ochlik, is suing the government of Syria in an American court.

    The Colvin family says they're not seeking retribution, but accountability.

    William Brangham is back with that story.


    Marie Colvin was considered one of the bravest journalists of her generation. She covered war and armed conflict across the world, mostly for The Sunday Times of London.

    She lost an eye covering conflict in Sri Lanka in 2001. But in February of 2012, she would lose her life covering the war in Syria.

    Colvin was again on assignment for The Times of London when she was killed by a rocket fired by the Syrian government. She was in the city of Homs, an epicenter of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Her body was found in a makeshift media center.

  • ABU SHADI, Shop Owner (through translator):

    Homs is in a mess and chaos, killing, stealing. People are dying. We closed our shops. Every day, two or three or four get kidnapped. Shame on them. We want to finish this. This is not a solution.


    Despite the indiscriminate shelling of the city, Colvin's younger sister, Cathleen, says that Marie's death was no accident.

  • CATHLEEN COLVIN, Marie Colvin’s Sister:

    I was absolutely sure from the very beginning that she was targeted. The timing of her last report out of Homs was — seemed like too much of a coincidence.


    That last report was a series of phone interviews Colvin did with American and British TV networks. In them, she described the Assad government's attack on civilians in Homs.

    This one was with the U.K.'s Channel 4 News.


    I am at ground zero, and I am seeing what's being hit. Civilian buildings are being hit. In the clinic today, if you can even call it that — it's an apartment, has two operating tables, and a dentist and a doctor.

    There was a tiny baby, well, 1-year-old, naked, hit in the left chest. The doctors just said, we can't do anything. And we had to watch the baby's little tummy, desperate for breath, die.


    Hours later, the building where she was working was hit.

    Cathleen Colvin believes the Assad regime intentionally targeted her sister, and she and her family has now filed a wrongful death suit against the Syrian government in a federal court in Washington, D.C. They allege Marie Colvin was assassinated as part of a — quote — "conspiracy by senior members of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to surveil, target and ultimately kill civilian journalists."

    The suit names President Assad's brother, as well as other top military and intelligence commanders.


    It went right and directly up to Assad's office, to the office of the president. And his younger brother was put in charge of this apparatus that was specifically directed to target foreign journalists. And the intention was to silence them, so that the Assad regime could operate with impunity.


    But it's not just top officials that Colvin blames. She points the finger at a local woman she says sealed her sister's fate.


    This female informant, who I picture lurking outside the media center the night before, and was able to visually confirm Marie's location.


    There was a Syrian citizen that you believe was able to inform the government, the journalists are here?


    Yes. They had already zeroed in using her — using the Skype that she was — that was what she was using to report out. And they had that signal intercepted. And so they had located the position, and this woman visually confirmed it.


    Evidence for these claims was uncovered by the Center for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit human rights organization based in San Francisco.

    Colvin says the proof of their allegations will come to light as the case progresses. Colvin hopes the lawsuit will bring a measure of accountability to the Assad regime for what she says it did to her sister and to the people of Syria.


    All the pain that my family has experienced I know is repeated every day in Syria.


    Cathleen Colvin's oldest daughter, Marie's niece, is named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit. She and her siblings were especially devastated by the loss.


    They talked to her all the time from war zones. She called us from Tahrir Square holding the phone up and saying, "You have to hear this. There is an uprising. The world is going to change."

    Marie was the most amazing and unique person I have ever known and I'm sure I ever will know. I feel incredibly lucky to have had such a close relationship with her.


    Colvin also wants to recognize the importance of journalists in conflict zones.


    As Marie said, tyrants like Assad can just do whatever they want with impunity, with the world never knowing the truth.

    And it's happening now in Syria. It's one of the most dangerous places to report from. And it's becoming more and more difficult to know what's really happening. So, to a certain extent, he's winning. He has silenced the press.


    But Marie Colvin's sister hopes that, through this lawsuit, one journalist who fell silent can be heard once again.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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