Disappeared Palestinian-Syrian software developer reportedly executed

Bassel Khartabil (Joy Ito)

The disappeared Palestinian-Syrian software developer and open Internet advocate Bassel Khartabil, also known as Bassel Safadi, was executed in late 2015, his wife Noura Ghazi announced on Facebook on Tuesday.

Khartabil was arrested in Damascus in March 2012, one year into the uprising in the country, and held in incommunicado detention.

“He was originally taken, interrogated and tortured in secret in a facility controlled by the country’s General Intelligence Directorate,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s international director Danny O’Brien stated on Tuesday.

“After a worldwide campaign by international human rights groups, together with Bassel’s many colleagues in the open Internet and free culture communities, he was moved to Adra’s civilian prison, from where he was able to communicate with his family and friends,” O’Brien added.

He remained there until October 2015, when he was transferred to an unknown location. Khartabil’s family lost contact with him after that time.

“Multiple governments condemned Syria’s holding of Bassel, and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Bassel’s imprisonment unlawful in April 2015, but the Assad government refused to release him or provide any information on his case to the outside world,” O’Brien stated.

It is now believed that Khartabil was executed shortly after his transfer from Adra prison.

According to Amnesty International, Khartabil’s family has received “information that he was killed in 2015 after allegedly being ‘tried’ and ‘sentenced to death’ by the military field court in al-Qaboun, Damascus, in a secret hearing.”

Amnesty added: “These courts are notorious for conducting closed-door proceedings that do not meet the minimum international standards for a fair trial.”

Champion of open Internet

Khartabil was the Syria project head for Creative Commons, a nonprofit group which promotes a license that allows creative works to be more widely shared.

He led negotiations held in Doha in late 2010 that resulted in a common language for discussing fair use and copyright in Arabic.

“Creative Commons, and the global commons of art, history and knowledge, are stronger because of Bassel’s contributions, and our community is better because of his work and his friendship,” the group stated.

“His death is a terrible reminder of what many individuals and families risk in order to make a better society.”

Khartabil co-founded Syria’s first hackerspace in 2010 and wrote the code to make Mozilla’s Firefox browser work in Arabic. He worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to show how the Syrian government censors the Internet.

Khartabil continued his open source programming work from inside Adra prison and created the New Palmyra Project. The initiative uses open source information to virtually reproduce the UNESCO world heritage site seized and badly damaged by the Islamic State group, which also executed its top archaeologist, in 2015.

Khartabil was named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012 and was given in absentia the Index on Censorship’s Digital Freedom Award for 2013. He was also offered a research scientist position by the prestigious MIT Media Lab after his disappearance.

“At a time when simply relaying the truth from Syria was a potentially dangerous act, he did not keep silent,” O’Brien stated.

“He took the world as his default audience. It seems like his prominence as an independent Syrian voice, a prominence that derived from his connections to the global Internet community, is what led to his detention.”

Khartabil was born in Damascus in 1981 but his family originally hails from Safed, a town in the Galilee region of historic Palestine which was ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces in 1948.

Thousands of prisoners dead

“The government has unlawfully detained thousands of Syrians, including many peaceful activists like Bassel, and thousands have died in Syria’s dungeons,” Human Rights Watch researcher Sara Kayyali stated on Wednesday.

“Human Rights Watch has photos of almost 7,000 bodies who died in custody,” Kayyali added.

More than 1,600 Palestinians have been detained by the Syrian government, according to the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria. Hundreds have died during their imprisonment.

Some 65,000 people have been forcibly disappeared in the country since an uprising began there in May 2011, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

Since the situation deteriorated into an ongoing war, estimates say that more than 400,000 people have lost their lives and more than half of Syria’s population have been forced to flee their homes.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called for independent monitoring of Syria’s detention sites after the announcement of Khartabil’s execution.

“Thousands of lives are on the line,” Amnesty stated.

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Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is the managing editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago.