A death sentence for battling Syria’s censors?

This photo of Bassel Khartabil wearing a Palestine-themed necklace is one of only a handful that Noura Ghazi has of her husband after the Syrian government confiscated their computers.

Bassel Khartabil’s loved ones have been kept in the dark about his fate. Although the Palestinian software developer is believed to have been sentenced to death in Syria, this has not been officially confirmed. Some rumors suggest that the execution has already been carried out.

The lack of reliable information is proving extremely stressful for his wife, Noura Ghazi.

“I’m losing weight and my hair is falling out,” Ghazi said. “I don’t even know whether he’s alive or dead.”

In October this year, Khartabil was transferred from Adra, a prison in Damascus, to an unknown location.

The following month Ghazi was contacted by people claiming to be insiders in the Syrian government. They told her that Khartabil had been sentenced to death.

She has not been given further details. The only thing she has been able to verify, with the help of other detainees in Adra, is that military police had removed Khartabil from his cell in that prison.

Khartabil, also known as Bassel Safadi, has been imprisoned since 2012. As a result, he and Ghazi have been forced to live apart for most of their relationship.

They met in April 2011, at a time when there was much hope among political activists. Taking heart from the unarmed uprisings that brought down dictators in Egypt and Tunisia earlier that year, they joined a social movement against Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule.

Indeed, their first meeting occurred when both were on their way back from a protest in Douma, a city near Damascus.

Khartabil was in Syria on vacation at the time. He held a job in Singapore and had originally planned to return there. That changed, however, after he met Ghazi, a human rights lawyer.

Khartabil used his computer skills as part of a quest for freedom. He provided the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international civil liberties group, with information about websites blocked by Assad’s regime.


“He wasn’t a typical Internet geek,” Ghazi said during a Skype interview from Damascus, where she pledges to remain. “He is unbelievably romantic. He used to give me a red rose every day since we became lovers until the day of his imprisonment.”

The couple were to get married in March 2012. Just a few days before their scheduled wedding date, Khartabil was arrested by Syria’s military intelligence services.

He was interrogated and tortured for five days, then brought to his home, where his computers were confiscated. For the following nine months, he was held incommunicado in two military-run detention centers.

Eventually, Khartabil was taken to Adra in December 2012. Although Adra is nominally a civilian prison, Khartabil was tried by a military prosecutor.

At no point was he allowed to have a lawyer. He was not informed of what charges he faced.

The move brought a modicum of relief to Ghazi as she was now able to visit her fiancé. The couple managed to sign their marriage contract in prison.

A political dissident who was held in Adra at the same time as Khartabil said it was deeply moving to see Ghazi visit her new husband.

“I was filled with hope every time I saw those two beautiful lovers reunite in such a tainted place,” the former prisoner told The Electronic Intifada on condition of anonymity.

Khartabil tried to keep his mind active within the prison. He and fellow inmates arranged classes in Arabic, English and mathematics. As they were only permitted to visit the prison library once a week, ardent readers within the prison had books smuggled in from outside.

Nonetheless, Khartabil became increasingly depressed. His wife was his sole source of strength.

Silenced by fear

Khartabil is one of more than 1,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Syria. At least 427 Palestinians have died since 2011 after being tortured in Syrian jails, according to the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria.

Almost certainly, those figures are underestimates. According to Ghazi, it is “to be expected” that some families have chosen not to publicize the detention of a loved one. “For more than 40 years, we have been silenced by fear,” she said.

Born in Damascus in 1981, Khartabil belonged to a family from Safed in the Galilee region of historic Palestine. It was attacked by Zionist forces during the Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine’s towns and villages.

Khartabil was committed to both the struggle for Palestine’s liberation and to achieving political change in Syria. According to his wife, he was committed to “collective emancipation.”

He is one of many Palestinians to have taken considerable risks in Syria. His bravery is similar to that of Niraz Saied, a photographer who grew up in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

Saied photographed Yarmouk while it was being bombed from the air by Syrian government forces. He was arrested and jailed by Syria in October this year.

Khatarbil’s convictions were shared by his wife. “I grew up in a [Syrian] family that considered the Palestinian cause our own,” Ghazi said.

“The walls of our house were saturated with maps of Palestine and images of Handalah,” she added, referring to the iconic refugee boy drawn by the assassinated cartoonist Naji al-Ali.

When she once told Khartabil that Palestine was the only place she was prepared to live, apart from Syria, tears welled up in his eyes. Asserting the right of Palestinian refugees to return home was his “ultimate dream,” Ghazi said.

Ghazi always knew that challenging the Damascus regime carried risks. Her own father, a political dissident, had been jailed when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, was president during the 1980s.

Still, she cannot understand why the regime is so determined to punish her husband at a time when Syria is at risk from extremist groups like Islamic State.

“If anyone can offer an alternative to terrorism and extremism and can actually rebuild the country and give it some hope, it is Bassel and people like him,” she said. “But they are jailed, tortured and threatened with execution.”

Ghazi has kept herself busy by writing a book about her husband. It is partly based on letters she wrote to him in Adra, which Khartabil has translated from Arabic to English.

She is hoping to publish the book soon. Her dream is that its publication will coincide with his release from prison. But she is finding it hard to remain optimistic.

“If I see him again, I might just pass out,” she said. “I just want to hug him and never let go. I want to tell him that my life isn’t worth living without him. Our country is burning; Bassel and I are two small details amid the wreckage.”

Budour Youssef Hassan is a Palestinian writer and law graduate based in occupied Jerusalem. Blog: budourhassan.wordpress.com. Twitter: @Budour48