Syrian-Palestinian web developer Bassel Khartabil aka Bassel Safadi has been missing for more than a year. But he has not been forgotten. More than five years after he was arrested by the Syrian regime, his supporters and loved ones continue to campaign for his freedom and celebrate his contributions to the open web.
This year's edition of re:publica, the annual digital culture conference held in Berlin, featured a session dedicated to the #FreeBassel campaign.
Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay, a researcher at the France-based CNRS Institute for Communication Sciences, and Barbara Rühling, the CEO of Book Sprints, a rapid book production and publishing company, read excerpts from the book Cost of Freedom: A Collective Inquiry.
The book, published last year and available in the public domain, contains a series of essays reflecting on free culture in the face of oppression. It is a tribute to Bassel and his work. The introduction reads:
This book wants to discuss how free knowledge movements are built and the real costs attached to them. Activists, artists, designers, developers, researchers, and writers involved with free knowledge movements have worked together to see further than the fog of our news feeds and produce some sense from our different experiences. This book is born in an attempt to free Bassel Khartabil, loved and celebrated Internet volunteer detained in Syria since 15 March 2012. His name has been deleted from the Adra Prison’s register where he was detained, on 3 October 2015. We have not received any information about his current status or whereabouts since. The introductory part of this book called Collective Memory gives voice to his friends and family that have been urging for his release and want him back in his normal life and freedom, immediately. Seeing Bassel paying a high price for his participation in free culture, many of us have started to reflect on our own fates, actions, and choices. Why are we here today? What have we chosen? What have we given up in this process of sometimes extreme belief?
The open source web developer and digital activist has been in the custody of Syrian government authorities since March 2012. In October 2015, Bassel was taken from Adra prison, a civilian facility, to an undisclosed location. His wife, writer and lawyer Noura Ghazi, reported that “military police took Bassel from his cell in Adra with a ‘top secret’ sealed order from the Military Field Court.”
On November 12, 2015, Ghazi reported that she was contacted by people who identified themselves as insiders in the Assad government who informed her of an alleged death sentence against her husband. However, his location and condition remain unknown.
A Creative Commons leader in Syria and active in projects like Mozilla Firefox and Wikipedia, Bassel played a pivotal role in extending online access and knowledge to the public in Syria.
Barry Threw, a designer and technologist who is currently the interim director of New Palmyra, a project founded by Bassel, writes on pages 10 and 11 of the book:
Perhaps none of Bassel’s cultural prototypes were more prescient than the work he started around 2005, with a group of archaeologists and 3D artists, to virtually reconstruct the ancient ruins of Palmyra. One of the world’s most important archaeological sites, Palmyra stood at the crossroads of several civilizations, with Graeco-Roman architectural styles melding with local traditions and Persian influences. Little could Bassel know that ten years after he began, Daesh fundamentalists would be actively deleting this architecture embodying Syrian, and the world’s, cultural heritage. But his foray into digital archaeology and preservation created a time capsule that will be invaluable to the public, researchers, and artists for years to come. Tragically, Bassel has not yet been able to complete this project.
Noura Ghazi also contributed to the book, writing about her husband's passion to share knowledge with others, even while in prison:
I’ve lived all my life dreaming of Freedom, and Bassel taught me to embrace it. I feel overwhelmed when I mention his name. Bassel taught me to master English, even while he’s been in prison. I’ve learned to read, write, and speak English well. He has always shared his knowledge with everyone who asked, and has also taught many prisoners to read, write, and speak English. Bassel opened the door to technology for me, he taught me to use both computers and smartphones. He taught me the Internet. He also taught other prisoners to use computers theoretically, without having one in their hands.
Ghazi is also the author of Waiting, a prose book written to her husband between 2012 and 2015, while he was in prison. Bassel and Noura spent a year working together on the book. She smuggled the texts to him when she visited him, and he would translate them from Arabic into English. The book is available in the public domain.
Here is an excerpt entitled “It happens”, from Noura's book:
It happens on every visit
that I sink into the world of your magical eyes
that I lose consciousness in the moment we embrace,
that I don't care about any of the dangers,
any of the fences, chains and guards
I forget the hustle of the jail
and I penetrate into every detail of your voice and words
that I carry with me with passion,
when your eyes say goodbye
and I leave another piece of my soul with you…
I return quickly to my solitude,
to retrieve all the moments,
and cry your absence and smile.
I convince myself that you will return soon…
On the first anniversary of Bassel's imprisonment, Ghazi wrote:
A year passes, my soul
I'm in your cage,
And you are still
In the cage of the monsters
Bassel's story is not unique in Syria. Since the beginning of the protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in 2011, more than 65,000 people have disappeared, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Those who have been arrested or forcibly disappeared by the regime have faced torture and even executions. As of 2016, at least 17,723 Syrians had died in custody since 2011, according to the international human rights group Amnesty International. The stories of many more people remain unknown.