War Crimes in Syria: Marie Colvin, Abbas Khan and a Way Forward for Accountability?

Nobody knows how many people have died in Syria. Several estimates place it at close to half a million people, but the U.N. gave up counting two years ago. The figures horrify, but do little to describe the war crimes rampant across the country. The bombings raining upon Aleppo testify the willingness and ability of the Assad regime to contravene international conventions. However, a legal case launched in the United States seeks to hold the Syrian government to account and could be emulated elsewhere.

In 1998 the International Criminal Court was established in response to the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. It was brought to U.N member states as the Rome Statute, signatory of which meant, by U.N rules, a state was bound by the obligations not to defeat the object and purpose of the treaty establishing the I.C.C. Syria signed the Rome Statute but never ratified the document. As a result the I.C.C has no independent authority to investigate or prosecute crimes that take place within Syrian territory. The United Nations Security Council is endowed with the power to refer jurisdiction to the court, however it is at the mercy of geopolitics. A 2014 measure to give the I.C.C jurisdiction in Syria was blocked by both Russia and China. Therefore, the case has been launched in the United States.

The plaintiff of the civil lawsuit is Cathleen Colvin, the sister of murdered foreign correspondent Marie Colvin. Marie was killed in Homs in February 2012 alongside French photojournalist Remi Ochlik whilst covering the conflict for The Sunday Times. The two had been staying in a house in Baba Amr, which had become a pop up media centre before it was shelled. The Syrian government deflected responsibility at the time suggesting they hadn’t known the inhabitants of the house, before suggesting they had died in an attack perpetrated by terrorists. The case alleges the Syrian regime bears criminal culpability for their murder.

The suit asserts that Colvin was tracked by the Syrian government from neighbouring Lebanon after receiving a tip that Colvin and her colleague Paul Conroy were planning to smuggle themselves into Syria. Once inside the country it is believed the plan to intercept Colvin’s communications, via her satellite phones, was maintained at the highest level of Assad’s regime – his special war cabinet. Created in response to the uprising, the Central Crisis Management Cell served to oversee the crackdown on opposition and included Bashir’s brother Maher, commander of the Syrian army’s Fourth Armoured Division, as a senior member. Having confirmed Colvin’s position with a female informant on the ground in Baba Amr, Maher is alleged to have instructed the building to be shelled. Fellow journalist Conroy, who previously served in a British Army artillery regiment, was wounded in the attack and described it as utilising the ‘bracketing’ technique – where multiple rockets are launched on either side of the target, drawing closer each round before hitting the target directly. Colvin and Ochlik were killed trying to flee the building while fellow journalists Paul Conroy, Edith Bouvier and Wael al-Omar were wounded.

Countering the multiple exonerating narratives offered by the Assad regime, Conroy said ‘nothing smacked of randomness in that situation’.

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Colvin was a veteran reporter who lost her right eye covering Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2001 and is credited with saving the lives of 1,500 women and children in East Timor. Besieged by Indonesian-backed forces, Colvin refused to abandon them, staying alongside a U.N force and reporting the civilian’s predicament in print and on television. They were all subsequently evacuated after four days. In the last report filed before her death, Colvin described the bombardment of Homs as the worst conflict she had ever experienced.

The case is possible due to research and documents obtained by U.S-based Center for Justice and Accountability, a non-profit human rights organisation campaigning to bring human rights violators to justice. Investigators working for the CJA have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government files out of Syria via defectors.

Abdelmajid Barakat, a defector who previously served as an administrator for the Crisis Cell, provided a large body of evidence, specifically to orders cracking down on dissenting voices. Barakat was responsible for writing summations of reports that could be presented to the Crisis Cell meetings. Following questioning by regime forces, Barakat fled into Turkey with implicating documents taped to his body. These documents make plain the extent of the violence ordered and implemented by the Crisis Cell, and form the basis of the evidence included in the lawsuit.

In a report by journalist Ben Taub, who published a profile on Barakat and the CJA, the court ready evidence against Syrian officials is described as ‘more complete and damning than any that has ever previously been collected during an active conflict’.

The Colvin case foreshadows a second war crimes case that could be brought against senior Syrian officials.


On December 16th 2013 Abbas Khan, a British orthopaedic surgeon from South London and father of two, died in regime custody. Khan was captured on November 22nd 2012 in Aleppo after travelling into the city from Turkey. Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad ascribed Khan’s death to suicide, ‘hanging himself with his pyjamas’. Just three days before, a Syrian government official told Dr Khan’s family that he would be released within days.

Khan’s mother, Fatima, travelled to Syria to lobby for her son’s release, arriving in July 2013 and visiting prisons and embassies to trace her son. Seeing her son at a Syrian court, she noted that he resembled a ‘skeleton’ and he begged her ‘sorry, I shouldn’t have come here, please take me home’. She observed he was missing a fingernail and his feet were burnt. An Evening Standard report exposed ‘two handwritten letters, passed to then Foreign Secretary William Hague’ by Mr Khan’s mother in which Abbas wrote: ‘I have been violently forced to beat other prisoners, kept in squalid conditions, denied access to toilets or medical treatment’, before describing male prisoners beaten to death and the screams of female prisoners as they were abused.

Khan’s testimony of prison conditions and widespread torture are corroborated by leaked documents, known as the Caesar files, provided by a defector. Caesar is a former military-police office who before the war documented crime scenes and traffic accidents involving military personnel in Damascus. Following the uprising Caesar photographed bodies in the morgue and surrounding garage bay of Damascus. Each body was given a unique number, scrawled next to or onto the body. Caesar began copying these files onto flash drives and escaped with them hidden in his socks in August 2013, three months before Abbas Khan’s death. The files were passed onto a team of international prosecutors and have since been used by families to identify loved ones caught in the web of Syria’s prisons. The photographs display in detail injuries consistent with the torture described by Khan in his letters and to Fatima. It has been reported that the Khan family believe it was impossible that Abbas would commit suicide. It seems a particularly farfetched claim given his impending release.

Throughout his detention, Khan was described by the Syrian regime as a terrorist element, travelling to Syria to join an extremist group. However a hearing at the Royal Court of Justice in London heard no evidence to support this and stated that Khan had sought to use his medical skills to help others. At the inquest the jury recorded a verdict of unlawful killing, noting that he had died in the care of the Syrian government.

Building on this verdict and using the plethora of documents available from the CJA should see a war crimes case brought against the Assad regime in regard to Abbas Khan’s death in custody.

The motivation for Colvin’s death was to prevent her reporting revealing the brutal crackdown on civilians by Assad’s regime. At the time of her death, Assad was using extreme violence to repress the uprising, just as his father had during the Hama uprising of 1982. Her reporting exposed the barbarity of the regime to the world and contributed to the growing momentum against his rule. This occurred before IS cut a swathe across the country and fragmented the opposition, changing the dynamics of the conflict.

Khan was likewise murdered to protect the regime’s crimes. Khan held powerful first hand experience of how Syria’s prisons acted as a network of torture and murder chambers. Had he returned home alive, Abbas would have served as vital evidence of how Assad mobilised the Syria state to extreme, often indiscriminate, detention and violence.

The conflict in Syria continues with no end in sight. Several political attempts to end the conflict have collapsed, and Assad has repeatedly stated he will only accept a military solution – his victory and reassertion of control across the country. In hoping for a Syria free of his regime and its overwhelming criminality the body of evidence must be employed to clarify in exacting detail and shame the regime. Little can be achieved without the physical removal of Assad. Whilst he maintains the unchallenged support, military and otherwise, of Russia he joins Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir as a serial war criminal head of state. But prosecuting cases like these will at least serve the principals the international community is obliged to adhere by. They will serve as powerful precedents, particularly in evidence gathering, for the evolving prosecution of war crimes cases.

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