|Native name||باسل خرطبيل|
May 22, 1981|
|Died||October 3, 2015(aged 34)|
|Known for||Aiki Framework, Openclipart, Open Font Library, Fabricatorz, Mozilla, Creative Commons|
|Awards||Index on Censorship 2013 Digital Freedom Award|
Bassel Khartabil (Arabic: باسل خرطبيل), also known as Bassel Safadi (Arabic: باسل صفدي), (22 May 1981, Damascus – 3 October 2015) was a Palestinian Syrian open-source software developer. On March 15, 2012, the one-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising, he was detained by the Syrian government at Adra Prison in Damascus. Between then and October 3, 2015, he had been transferred to an unknown location, probably to be judged by a military court. On October 7, 2015, Human Rights Watch and 30 other human rights organizations issued a letter demanding that Khartabil's whereabouts be disclosed. On November 11, 2015, rumors surfaced that Khartabil had been secretly sentenced to death. In August 2017, it was revealed by his wife on Facebook that Khartabil had been executed by the Syrian regime shortly after his disappearance in 2015.
Khartabil was born in Damascus and raised in Syria, where he specialized in open source software development. He was chief technology officer (CTO) and co-founder of collaborative research company Aiki Lab and was CTO of Al-Aous, a publishing and research institution dedicated to archaeological sciences and arts in Syria. He has served as project lead and public affiliate for Creative Commons Syria, and has contributed to Mozilla Firefox, Wikipedia, Openclipart, Fabricatorz, and Sharism. He "is credited with opening up the Internet in Syria and vastly extending online access and knowledge to the Syrian people."
His last work included an open, 3D virtual reconstruction of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, real time visualization, and development with Fabricatorz for the web programming framework Aiki Framework. This was later created and displayed in his honor.
On March 15, 2012, Khartabil was detained amid arrests in the Mazzeh district of Damascus by Military Security Branch 215. That day marked the one-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising, with pro- and anti-government protesters demonstrating in Damascus and elsewhere in the country.
Khartabil was interrogated and allegedly tortured for five days by Military Branch 215. One week after his arrest, security forces reportedly took him to his home where they confiscated his computers and his files. He was then transferred to the Interrogation Division Branch 248 and detained there incommunicado for 9 months. On December 9, 2012, Khartabil was brought before a military prosecutor who charged him with "spying for an enemy State" under Articles 272 and 274 of the Syrian Criminal Code. Khartabil was then sent to the Adra Prison in Damascus.
On December 12, 2013, a request for written answer on the question of Khartabil's imprisonment was raised before the European Parliament to the Commission (Vice-President/High Representative), stating that "his voluntary work, always non-violent in nature, was greatly valued by Syrians of all backgrounds, and it is strongly suspected that his arrest was part of an effort to restrict access to online communities and discourses and stifle free expression in Syria." On March 18, 2014, the written answer from High Representative/Vice-President Catherine Ashton was published, stating that "The HR/VP deplores the ongoing imprisonment of Bassel Safadi Khartabil, shares the concerns at his situation and follows it very closely."
On April 21, 2015, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) adopted an Opinion on Khartabil's case, calling his detention "arbitrary" and asking for his immediate release. The WGAD concluded that Kharbatil's detention violated Articles 9, 14 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Syria ratified in 1969.
Khartabil was arrested a few days before his marriage contract to Noura Ghazi, a lawyer and human rights activist, was to be signed. The contract was finalized later that year, while Khartabil was in prison. The couple first met in Douma in April 2011 after coming back from a demonstration.
On Valentine's Day 2015, Noura made public a love letter she wrote Bassel where she reflects on what has taken place in Syria in the time he had been imprisoned:
Bassel, I am very afraid, I am afraid about the country that is being slaughtered, divided, bleeding, being destroyed.. Ouch Bassel, I am very afraid that our dream is changing from seeing ourselves being the generation freeing their country to the one witnessing its destruction. Ouch Bassel, I am very afraid …
On March 21, 2013 Khartabil was awarded Index on Censorship's Digital Freedom Award. Although still detained at the time in Adra Prison, Bassel was able to communicate his gratitude through Dana Trometer and Jon Phillips receiving the award on his behalf, wherein he paid "respect to all the victims of the struggle for freedom of speech, and, especially for those non-violent youths who refused to carry arms and deserve all the credit for this award."
Imprisonment and public outcry
Khartabil was arrested and put in prison on March 15, 2012. He was moved about from one prison to another, including a high-security military prison. At times he was able to get letters out to friends and family while in Adra Prison, but at other times he was allegedly tortured and kept in confinement, without contact. In 2015, he was reportedly executed, but this was not confirmed until 2017.
After his detention became widely known in early July 2012, a global campaign was launched calling for his immediate release. Notable Internet companies like Mozilla, Wikipedia, Global Voices, EFF and Creative Commons wrote letters to the Syrian government urging his immediate release. Notable individuals like Lawrence Lessig, Joi Ito, Mitchell Baker, Jillian York, Mohamed Nanabhay and Barry Threw wrote public letters of support. Al Jazeera, Framablog, and Hackernews wrote about the effort.
In October 2012, Amnesty International released a document with information suggesting that Khartabil has been ill-treated and even tortured. On October 23, the Taiwan chapter of Amnesty International led a letter-writing event at Insomnia Cafe to raise awareness about Khartabil in Taipei, Taiwan. On November 26, he was named one of the top 100 global thinkers by Foreign Policy for his resistance.
In December, he was moved to a military prison to await a military trial. In response, a fasting campaign was launched to raise awareness about Khartabil's deteriorating incarceration situation. On January 25, 2013, reports circulated about the pending trial and fears of his execution. On March 15 the #FREEBASSEL project organized a #FREEBASSELDAY campaign with Creative Commons, Mozilla, and other community leaders, leading to public artworks, meetups, press, and videos.
On May 22, commemorating Khartabil's 32nd birthday—the second time he spent a birthday in prison as well as the 799th day of the Syrian conflict—the Index on Censorship, Creative Commons, and the #FREEBASSEL campaign launched Project Sunlight, to uncover more information about Khartabil's condition and location. His mother wrote, "I just want him free, I pray for him to be free and I pray for all his friends who believe and work on Bassel's freedom."
At the Index on Censorship Awards, Jon Phillips said of Khartabil, "Locking up Bassel only locks out his personal freedom. By locking up Bassel, his Syrian captors are accidentally locking out themselves from the future...thousands of people that Bassel’s work helped, now help him by spreading the message #FREEBASSEL. This is what truly builds Syria and connects it to the global connected future. This award proves that his lock-up, is NOT a lock-out of his digital freedom."
In 2014, Marc Weidenbaum gathered participants to create 38 musical pieces that might be used as a soundscape for an immersive, completed digital visualization of ancient Palmyra. A second iteration of #FREEBASSELDAY involved a Wikipedia "edit-a-thon", meetups, the creation of a cookbook in Khartabil's honor, and press mentions.
Rebecca MacKinnon wrote about Khartabil and the Zone 9 Bloggers in the World Policy Journal, and Wikipedia hosted an editathon for Zone 9 bloggers. On Human Rights Day, Global Voices led a campaign to raise awareness about his imprisonment.
In March 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation hosted a Wikipedia edit-a-thon for #FREEBASSELDAY. In addition, the Creative Commons Arab World organized a virtual Arabic Wikipedia edit-a-thon to translate and expand pages related to Bassel and his interests. He was later profiled with the launch of the EFF's Offline project, "sharing the stories of imprisoned technologists and technology users."
In 2017, the #FREEBASSEL campaign asked supporters to do five public acts in honor of Khartabil, to be posted on social media.
Transfer and execution
On September 12, 2015, Jaysh al-Islam shelled and stormed the prison, taking control of two buildings. Until early October Khartabil was still in Adra Prison in the suburbs of Damascus, Syria. By October 3, military police took him from his cell in Adra with a 'top secret' sealed order from the Military Field Court. He was transferred to an unknown location.
On October 6, Amnesty International released a new report on Khartabil's status. A day later, Human Rights Watch and 30 other human rights organizations issued a letter demanding that Khartabil's whereabouts be disclosed. On October 17, Creative Commons Board of Directors approved a resolution calling for Khartabil's release. On October 21, the New Palmyra project was launched to carry on his 3D modeling work and other creative uses of data about Palmyra. A day later, the MIT Media Lab offered Khartabil a position of research scientist at the Center for Civic Media to work with Ethan Zuckerman on projects to make Syria's history available to the world. On November 9, an anthology of essays in Khartabil's honor, entitled The Cost of Freedom: A Collective Inquiry, was released under a Creative Commons public domain license. Two days afterward, unconfirmed rumors surfaced that Khartabil had been sentenced to death.
In August 2017, Khartabil's wife and friends reported they had seen a copy of official documents confirming he had been executed after his transfer from Adra prison in 2015.
Creative Commons announced the creation of the Bassel Khartabil Memorial Fund, to support projects in line with his ideas and work throughout his life. On August 11th, the Mozilla Foundation announced the creation of the Bassel Khartabil Free Culture Fellowship, organized by Mozilla, Wikimedia, Creative Commons, the Jimmy Wales Foundation, #NEWPALMYRA and other groups. It is aimed at supporting individuals developing free culture, particularly under adverse circumstances.
Models of ancient Palmyra
Starting in 2005, Khartabil began collecting photographs of the ancient architecture and archaeology sites in Palmyra, in the hopes of reconstructing the city online, using 3D models and virtual spaces.
His efforts were put on hold when he was imprisoned, and some of his early work was lost. In 2015 his friends and colleagues launched the New Palmyra Project to bring that dream to life. Since then, many of the most famous structures in Palmyra have been modeled, and some life-size models built of structures that were destroyed in the Syrian Civil War.
As of 2017, most of the buildings and statues captured by the New Palmyra Project have been completely destroyed by ISIL.
Writing and art
Khartabil wrote hundreds of letters while in prison, including some while he was in a high-security military prison, where writing was prohibited. He also produced some paintings and poetry. For a short time, he published some of his writing to an anonymous prison blog and Twitter account, via a friend.
"Jail is not walls, not the executioner and guards. It is the hidden fear in our hearts that makes us prisoners"
- Art from Adra Prison
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