United States District Court, District of Columbia
AMENDED MEMORANDUM OPINION
BERMAN JACKSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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
youngest sister, Cathleen Colvin,  niece Justine Araya-Colvin,
and nephew Christopher Araya-Colvin,  (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.
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,  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. The plaintiffs' briefing, with almost
1000 pages of attached exhibits, declarations, and expert
reports, was comprehensive. Thus, an evidentiary hearing is
Syria's Political Climate in 2011
The Syrian Government's Response to the Arab
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 nonviolent movement as well as an armed insurrection,
calling for government change and an end to corruption.
Pls.' Mem. at 4; Ford Rpt. ¶ 28.
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.
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.
Suppression of the Media and the Rise of the Independent
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.
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.
The Government's Focus on Baba Amr and its Media
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”). 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.
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).
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.
The Death of Marie Colvin
Marie Colvin and Her Assignment in Homs, Syria
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
Sunday Times, covering conflict zones in Iraq, Chechnya,
the Balkans, East Timor, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, and Libya.
Compl. ¶ 21. She was in Baghdad through the Gulf War
bombing in 1991, witnessed the American bombing of Tripoli in
1992, and interviewed both Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and
Yasser Arafat of Palestine. Witherow Decl. ¶ 22. When a
grenade blinded her in one eye in Sri Lanka, she became known
for wearing a signature black eye patch. Id. ¶
24. Colvin received dozens of accolades for her reporting,
including the British Press Awards' Foreign Reporter of
the Year (2000, 2009, and 2012), the Foreign Press
Association's Journalist of the Year (2000), and the
International Women's Media Foundation's Courage in
Journalism Award (2000). Colvin Decl. ¶ 26, n.18;
Witherow Decl. ¶ 25. Her assignment in Syria was the
last she had with The Sunday Times.
and British photographer, Paul Conroy, traveled together to
Syria on February 13, 2012. Conroy Decl. ¶ 6. They
entered the country with the help of members of the FSA and a
pacifist named Wael Fayez al-Omar. Id.; al-Omar
Decl. ¶ 15. Their journey took two days; they traveled
to Homs through a smuggler's route, and in Homs, they
used an underground water tunnel to reach the Baba Amr Media
Center. Conroy Decl. ¶¶ 9, 11; al-Omar Decl.
¶¶ 15-16. The Media Center was located in an
apartment building, offering foreign journalists a place to
sleep and report. Conroy Decl. ¶ 13; al-Omar Decl.
¶ 16; Salah Decl. ¶ 20.
February 16, the day after they arrived, Colvin and Conroy
could hear the sound of randomized shelling throughout the
neighborhood for most of the day. Conroy Decl. Â¶ 14; al-Omar
Decl. Â¶ 17. Nonetheless, Colvin wanted to see the area and
speak with the locals. With al-Omarâs help, she visited an
underground storage facility sheltering locals and an
improvised field hospital located in an apartment building.
Conroy Decl. Â¶Â¶ 15â17; al-Omar Decl. Â¶ 17.
evening, rumors of an imminent invasion and possible gas
attack forced Colvin and others to flee Baba Amr using the
same tunnels through which they had arrived. Conroy Decl.
¶ 18; al-Omar Decl. ¶ 18. Colvin was able to
dictate a story to The Sunday Times via satellite
telephone. Conroy Decl. ¶ 19. The rumored invasion never
transpired, and Colvin wanted to return to Baba Amr, despite
being told that the government would likely capture the
neighborhood. Pls.' Mem. at 14; al-Omar Decl. ¶ 19.
Colvin and Conroy returned to the Media Center on February
20, 2012, but because the shelling on the district was even
more intense than before, they were unable to explore the
neighborhood. Al-Omar Decl. ¶ 21.
Government Involvement in the Attack on the Baba Amr Media
HMSC was aware that foreign journalists were traveling to
Baba Amr and made it a priority to pin down the location of
the Media Center. Ulysses Decl. ¶¶ 34-38. In
January 2011, a memorandum circulated within the HMSC stating
that it was aware that foreign journalists were entering
Syria and Homs and directed military to “take all
necessary measures” to capture them. Id.
trace the location of the journalists, Major General Shahadah
directed intelligence to intercept the communications coming
out of Baba Amr. Id. ¶ 39. A device that could
intercept broadcasts from the signals of satellite phones was
installed on a vehicle circling Baba Amr, and informants were
recruited to spy on the Media Center to ascertain its
location. Id. ¶¶ 39-40.
February 21, 2012, the eve of the attack, an informant
contacted XXXXX, a
“middle-man” in charge of gathering intelligence
for the HMSC. Id. ¶ 51. After XXXXX spoke to the informant, XXXXX, telling XXXXX that
XXXXX had information on the location
of the Media Center. Id. ¶ 53. XXXXX the boss, ” and sometime after that
XXXXX, Major General Shahadah
XXXXX, asking him and the informant
to meet with him. Id. ¶¶ 53-54. After the
meeting, the information was passed to the Computer and
Signals Section of the Syrian Military Intelligence
Department, to cross-check the purported location of the
Media Center with the origination of the intercepted
broadcasts. Id. ¶ 58. Later, was XXXXX told that there had been a broadcast
“from the same location.” Id. ¶ 60.
That same evening, Colvin had given live interviews from
within Baba Amr to BBC, CNN, and U.K. Channel 4. Witherow
Decl. ¶ 14.
The Attack on the Baba Amr Media Center
morning of February 22, 2012, Colvin, Conroy, and their guide
al-Omar awoke to the sound of a series of blasts. Conroy
Decl. ¶ 22. Both Conroy and al-Omar realized that the
shelling was different than the usual daily shelling that was
scattered in nature and occurred in waves. This shelling was
concentrated in one area and had a pattern recognizable as an
artillery technique for targeting a specific location, called
“bracketing.” Id. ¶¶ 23-24;
al-Omar Decl. ¶ 23 (“I recognized this as an
artillery targeting method I had learned in the [Syrian]
army: we had been trained to direct multiple salvos of fire
at a specific target and to correct course between salvos
until the target was successfully hit.”). The rockets
also made a whistling sound that al-Omar recognized as the
sound made by rockets used by the Syrian army. Al-Omar Decl.
the onslaught of rockets, journalists and activists ran to
evacuate through the front hall of the Media Center.
Id. ¶ 25. The evacuation was conducted in
pairs: each pair would first run into the foyer of the
building and then across the street, toward a building with
an underground shelter. Id. ¶ 26. Al-Omar,
Colvin, and French photographer, Remi Ochlik, held hands,
awaiting their turn to run, but because they were a group of
three, al-Omar was separated from them. Id. ¶
27. Colvin and Ochlik started to run out of the building.
But, before they could, a rocket hit the front of Media
Center, and its blast killed both Colvin and Ochlik. Conroy
Decl. ¶ 27. Those who were not in the front of the
building - Conroy, al-Omar, and another journalist, Edith
Bouvier - were injured by the shock wave. Conroy Decl. ¶
26; al-Omar Decl. ¶ 28.
artillery fire continued for more than seventeen minutes. Doe
Decl. ¶¶ 25-27. The shelling eventually ceased, and
Javier Espinosa Robles (a Spanish journalist who had made it
across the street to the shelter) took a photo of the damaged
façade of the Media Center showing its complete
devastation. Robles Decl. ¶ 19, Ex. A. Salah, a founding
member of the Media Center who had been in a nearby building
during the attack arrived shortly after and dictated his
observations to a cameraman filming the bodies of Colvin and
Ochlik lying in rubble. Salah Decl. ¶¶ 38-39. Those
that survived, Conroy, Bouvier, and al-Omar, were taken to a
makeshift field clinic for treatment. Robles Decl. ¶ 22;
Conroy Decl. ¶ 31. Eventually, they were able to leave
the country with the help of the FSA. Robles Decl. ¶ 24;
Conroy Decl. ¶¶ 32-33.
The Celebration of the Attack by Syrian Government
the attack, the Homs Security Chief Major General Shahadah
convened a group of military and intelligence officers to
celebrate their success in locating and attacking the Media
Center. Ulysses Decl. ¶ 62. Major General Shahadah
thanked and congratulated them, and they drank to a
successful operation. Id. ¶¶ 63-65. They
specifically spoke about Colvin's death; Major General
Shahadah stated, “Marie Colvin was a dog and now
she's dead. Let the Americans help her now.”
Id. ¶ 65. XXXXX Maher
al-Assad, the president's brother and commander of the
Fourth Division of the Syrian Army, gave him a new car as a
reward for the successful attack. Id. ¶ 66.
Major General Shahadah was later promoted and named the head
of the Syrian Military Intelligence Department. Id.
brought this case against Syria on July 9, 2016 asserting
that defendant committed an extrajudicial killing in
violation of the FSIA. Compl. ¶¶ 81-91. After
almost two years and several attempts to serve the defendant,
plaintiffs filed proof of service. See Service Aff.
The Clerk of the Court entered default against defendant on
July 11, 2017. See Default Entry. On March 22, 2018,
plaintiffs moved for default judgment. Pls.' Mot. for
Default J. [Dkt. # 42].
Rule of Civil Procedure 55(a) provides that the Clerk of the
Court must enter a party's default “[w]hen a party
against whom a judgment for affirmative relief is sought has
failed to plead or otherwise defend, and that failure is
shown by affidavit or otherwise.”
the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a court may not enter
default judgment against a foreign state “unless the
claimant establishes his claim or right to relief by evidence
satisfactory to the court.” 28 U.S.C. § 1608(e);
Han Kim v. Democratic People's Republic of
Korea, 774 F.3d 1044, 1047 (D.C. Cir. 2014)
(“[W]hen the defendant State fails to appear and the
plaintiff seeks a default judgment, FSIA leaves it to the
court to determine precisely how much and what kinds of
evidence the plaintiff must provide, requiring only that it
be ‘satisfactory to the court.'”). Default
judgment under the FSIA is identical to the standard for
entry of default judgments against the United States under
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 55(d). Hill v. Republic
of Iraq, 328 F.3d 680, 683 (D.C. Cir. 2003), quoting
H.R. Rep. No. 94-1487, at 26 (1976), as reprinted in
1976 U.S.C.C.A.N. 6604, 6625.
the considerations of sovereign immunity that pertain
notwithstanding the default, a court must carefully
scrutinize the plaintiff's allegations and “may not
unquestioningly accept a complaint's unsupported
allegations as true.” Reed v. Islamic Republic of
Iran, 845 F.Supp.2d 204, 211 (D.D.C. 2012), citing
Rimkus v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 750 F.Supp.2d
163, 171 (D.D.C. 2010). In a default proceeding under the
FSIA, plaintiff may establish proof through testimony,
documentation, and affidavits. Spencer v. Islamic
Republic of Iran, 922 F.Supp.2d 108, 109 (D.D.C. 2013),
citing Blais v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 459
F.Supp.2d 40, 53 (D.D.C. 2006).
The Court has jurisdiction over plaintiff's claims under
outset, plaintiffs must demonstrate that the Court has
jurisdiction to hear their claims and that Syria is not
immune from suit. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act
(“FSIA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1602-1611, is
“the sole basis for obtaining jurisdiction over a
foreign state in our courts.” Argentine Republic v.
Amerada Hess Shipping Corp., 488 U.S. 428, 434 (1989). A
foreign state is typically immune from jurisdiction in U.S.
courts. See 28 U.S.C. § 1604. But subject
matter jurisdiction may exist if the defendant's conduct
falls within one of the statutory exceptions to immunity.
See id.; 28 U.S.C. § 1330(a). If the foreign
state is not immune, a plaintiff can establish personal
jurisdiction over the defendant if the plaintiff executes
service in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1608.
See 28 U.S.C. § 1330(b). Here, the