How the Assad Regime Tracked and Killed Marie Colvin for Reporting on War Crimes in Syria
IT IS A horrifying artifact of our digital era: a jumpy 18-minute-and-49-second cellphone video of a Skype call. Glimpses of an Arabic-language keyboard and laptop screen can be seen as the audio plays through tinny speakers. We hear panicked shouts in Arabic, the crack of explosions finding their way closer, a woman’s voice shouting. A man yells in English: “I’m hit! I need a tourniquet on my leg. I can’t move.”
The video captures the frantic final moments of journalists Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik. The two were struck by a rocket on the morning of February 22, 2012, in the neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs, Syria. It was the beginning of that country’s civil war, which has now stretched into seven years of devastating violence. In federal court in Washington, D.C., on Monday, the video was submitted as a key piece of evidence in a lawsuit accusing the Syrian government of targeting and murdering Colvin, a U.S. citizen raised on Long Island, as she sought to cover the war.
The Colvin family filed the video and nearly 2,000 pages of documents, including military intelligence memoranda and testimony from Syrian defectors, as part of a federal civil lawsuit against the Syrian government. The documents provide detailed and unprecedented evidence to support the claim that Colvin was deliberately hunted and killed as part of a policy by the Assad regime to eliminate journalists. They also offer an insider account of the death of French journalist Gilles Jacquier, who, according to one regime defector, was assassinated in a government attack staged to look like a rebel assault while Jacquier was reporting in Syria under official approvals. The Syrian government declined to comment on the allegations, according to a spokesperson for the Syrian Mission to the United Nations.
The Center for Justice & Accountability, a San Francisco-based human rights group, built the case following a six-year investigation. Attorneys compiled witness accounts, internal regime documents, and testimony from senior defectors with direct knowledge of the events leading up to the attack that killed 56-year-old Colvin and 28-year-old Ochlik. Many of the exhibits were provided by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an investigative group that has collected more than 800,000 regime documents through a network of investigators on the ground in Syria. The documents do not include direct orders to the artillery unit that ultimately struck Colvin and Ochlik, nor do the records directly implicate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the new documents offer an account of the intelligence that revealed Colvin’s location and the celebratory response by Syrian military and intelligence officials in Homs after her death.
“It’s important to set the historical record straight,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “There’s already a counternarrative being formed by people who support the government and deny its responsibility for atrocities, deny its responsibility for war crimes.”
Marie Colvin’s death marked an inflection point in the Syrian conflict. Colvin, a celebrated journalist for the Sunday Times of London who had reported on conflicts dating back to the Iran-Iraq War in the mid-1980s, was known for her fearlessness and the black eye patch she wore after losing her left eye while covering the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka. In February 2012, she filed a report about Homs, a city of 1.8 million, documenting the government’s shelling of civilian areas. After pulling back to a village outside the city, she decided to return to Baba Amr, a neighborhood under constant government bombardment, telling her colleague Paul Conroy “this was today’s Sarajevo,” and that she refused to “cover Sarajevo from the suburbs.”
Her final reports detailed the brutal human toll of the indiscriminate violence. On February 21, she did a series of live interviews over Skype with Channel 4 and the BBC in the U.K. and CNN in the U.S. Speaking to Anderson Cooper, she recounted the death of a small child from a blast injury. “We just watched this little boy, his tummy heaving and heaving as he tried to breathe,” she said. “It’s a complete and utter lie that they are only going after terrorists. … The Syrian army is shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”
The broadcasts betrayed her location at the Baba Amr Media Center, an activist-run ad-hoc studio, and allowed local intelligence to confirm her position and target her with a rocket attack, according to court filings.