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Rights lawyer's hidden hunt for justice: First war crimes-related case against Assad reaches US court Open in fullscreen

Mansour Omari

Rights lawyer's hidden hunt for justice: First war crimes-related case against Assad reaches US court

Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik were killed in February 2012 in Homs [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 April, 2018

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Interview: Mansour Omari speaks to human rights lawyer Scott Gilmore to find out more about Marie Colvin's case, the first war crimes-related one against Syria's government to reach US court.
Decades ago, the international community fell into an indispensable debate on how to react to mass atrocities, following the failure to prevent the horrors in the Balkans and Rwanda. In 2000, Kofi Annan, a former General of the UN, said: "If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violation of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?"
 
Today, Syrians have been suffering exactly what Annan described, if not more. They have been left to deal with the killing machine of the Assad regime and his allies alone, as they commit worse crimes than a "typical" dictatorship against its people. In Syria’s case, it has reached to what can be described as a "political genocide."
 
There are only a few beams of light left for Syrians to hang on to – human rights organisations and groups like Human Rights WatchReporters Without Borders, and Amnesty International that are working day and night to spot violations, document and report them, free independent media and filmmakers who give voice to victims, and human rights lawyers who are working relentlessly and in the shades to bring justice to the victims.

The gates to justice for Syrians are sealed. Syria is not a member of the International Criminal Court and the Russian veto is blocking the referral of the Syrian case to it.

Currently, there is one option that can be approached, the Universal Jurisdiction, which is influenced by foreign policies. National judicial systems are concerned with their nationals.

One case of a crime committed by the Assad regime that seems to be going ahead in the US is the case of Marie Colvin. 

Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin died in February 2012 in the Homs province under suspected regime shelling. French photographer Remi Ochlik was also killed in the same attack.

Scott Gilmore, the Colvin family's lawyer, presented the evidence to a US court this month to show that Assad's military targeted Marie Colvin and killed her.

"The case we filed against the Assad regime for killing Marie Colvin has been brought to a US court," Scott Gilmore told The New Arab.

The legal action filed in early April is the first war crimes-related case against the Syrian regime to reach court.

The claim, which draws on evidence from Syrian army defectors, says Colvin was "assassinated" by the regime as part of a campaign targeted journalists in the war-torn country. 

The claim said: "This deliberate, malicious conduct by the regime was undertaken in blatant violation of established rules of international law, and constitutes an extrajudicial killing." 

Some defectors alleged the Syrian regime knew journalists' whereabouts through satellite tracking. 

"US law strips away the immunity that a foreign state would normally enjoy because the regime has been designated a sponsor of terrorism," Gilmore said. He reiterated initial suspicions the Assad regime deliberately targeted Colvin as a part of a campaign against journalists.

Gilmore said the documents included evidence that Assad's government had "identified media workers as targets from very early on in the conflict", with Colvin's name on their radar. Those who attacked journalists were awarded with promotions if they were in the Syrian military, or if they were militia leaders, they were given rewards such as cars.

We hope that the evidence we have presented against the regime will one day be used to prosecute Assad and his military and intelligence chiefs. Until there is a political transition in Syria, or an international court is given jurisdiction, we will have to pursue these cases in national courts around the world
Gilmore explained how in a world of impunity, he sees the possibility of reaching actual results for justice and the possibilities of holding Assad or his military accountable, while they are in Syria and supported by Russia.

"But this still leaves the unanswered question of criminal accountability: we hope that the evidence we have presented against the regime will one day be used to prosecute Assad and his military and intelligence chiefs. Until there is a political transition in Syria, or an international court is given jurisdiction, we will have to pursue these cases in national courts around the world," Gilmore added.

Though Syrians are disappointed with the lack of accountability and justice and the continuous crimes in Syria, Gilmore advises that "victims should be in the driver’s seat – always pushing for justice and creating an irresistible pressure on the international community."

But Gilmore was not so optimistic that this justice would be fulfilled very soon. 

"Unfortunately, justice for war crimes moves very slowly. At the US Department of Justice, I’ve seen cases brought against former concentration camp guards from the Second World War who are in their 90s. The last chapter in their life is a trial where they have to face the ghosts of their victims. It is justice delayed, but at least it is not entirely denied," Gilmore said.

Since 2012, CJA - Center for Justice and Accountability, which Gilmore works with, and its partners have been building potential cases addressing the detention, torture and murder of activists, intellectuals, and everyday civilians in mukhabarat detention centres in Syria. Human rights research has found that the worst torture has taken place in these detention facilities run by the country's four main intelligence agencies and commonly referred to collectively as the mukhabarat.

They have seen "staggering" evidence of sexual violence against men, women, and children, which will become the basis of prosecution of senior regime officials for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. 
Unfortunately, justice for war crimes moves very slowly. At the US Department of Justice, I’ve seen cases brought against former concentration camp guards from the Second World War who are in their 90s
At the same time, Gilmore is helping the families of other Americans who were targeted by the Islamic State group in Syria, such as US journalist Jim Foley, who was abducted and beheaded by the extremist group in Syria in 2014. 

"While the Assad regime and its allies bear the most responsibility for international crimes in Syria, I think it is important that we see the crisis as a whole, and that we hold any party accountable if they engage in human rights abuses," Gilmore said. 

Read more by Mansour Omari:

- Syria's citizen journalists on the frontline of press freedom

- I survived Assad's extermination facilities, but only just

- Assad's not 'using a crematorium', he's executing a holocaust

Gilmore's interest in Syria came about after the Bush administration sent Syrian-Canadian citizen Maher Arar to be tortured and interrogated by the Assad regime.

Gilmore began researching the torture techniques used by the mukhabarat, that have become all too familiar today, these include "the flying carpet, German chair, shabbeh and falaka."

The CJA did not have the jurisdiction to take legal action in the US against crimes committed by the Assad regime before, but "since the Baba Amr media centre attack in Homs in 2012 had international victims," including Marie Colvin, "it enabled the American justice system to examine what was happening in Homs," Gilmore explained. 

Talking about foreign policy of countries, and its influence on the judges' decisions or their acceptance of certain lawsuits, he said that the United States still has a very independent judiciary.

"We have been able to file cases on the basis of the law, without much in the way of political pressure," he said.  

In Marie Colvin’s case, both the Obama and Trump administrations have helped the CJA team by officially sending the complaint and other court documents to the Foreign Ministry in Damascus through diplomatic channels. 

"The regime appears to have instructed the mail room at the Foreign Ministry to refuse signing receipt of any papers from the court in Washington, but they cannot escape so easily," Gilmore said. 

"The US State Department appeared in court and certified that Damascus had received a diplomatic note containing our complaint," he added.

Physical threats are usually associated with the work of lawyers on certain cases. But in the case of Gilmore, he explained that in the United States, the threats are mainly online.

After filing the Colvin complaint, Gilmore was faced with hackers trying to gain access to his computer and social media accounts.

"The regime has a long record of using the Syrian Electronic Army and informants overseas to spy on people around the world, so we must always be vigilant, even in the West," he said.

"In many ways, Marie Colvin’s death was an early warning to the world, a warning that tragically went ignored." 


Mansour Omari is a Syrian journalist and Syria correspondent for Reporters Without Borders. He is the author of Syria Through Western Eyes: In-depth look on the Western reporting on Syria in 2013-2014.

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