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Bassel Khartabil achieves his ambitions after his execution

Editing: Obaida Al Nabwani |
TranslationEditor: Vera Halvorsen |
Translation: Muhammad Ghaith
Publication date: 2018/02/20 19:38

Bassel Khartabil was denied his freedom for more than three and half years, despite being one of the most prominent human rights defenders and activists for freedom of speech in Syria. Khartabil constantly worked towards giving everyone access to information, however his family and friends were denied the right to information about the place of his arrest and his execution.

[English editor's note: Bassel Khartabil was arrested in March 2012 and executed by the Syrian government in October 2015. His family did not learn of his execution until August 2017.]

Bassel Khartabil, also known as Bassel Safadi, was one of the most important open source software developers in Syria before his death, and is credited for raising awareness of the the Internet and online social networks in Syria. The global magazine Foreign Policy published a list of the world's Top 100 Global Thinkers on Nov. 22, 2012, placing Khartabil as number 19 along with the Syrian lawyer Rima Dali.

Khartabil was born on May. 22, 1981. He specialized in developing open source software and worked to spread his concept called the Creative Commons, which promotes free access to information. Khartabil participated in several local and international projects, the most prominent of which was the New Palmyra project, which he completed while in prison. The project aimed to recreate the ancient city of Palmyra in a virtual space accessible for everyone. Khartabil also participated in projects with global tech companies such as Mozilla Firefox, Open Clipart, Font Library, Fabricators, and others.

Khartabil promoted the importance of free access to information and sharing it without restrictions or censorship, especially after the Syrian Revolution broke out in 2011, and the number of detainees increased along with the oppression of the Syrian people. It became increasingly difficult to find out where the Syrian government was detaining people, and finding out information about them in general. Khartabil trained activists in the basics of information and digital security to protect themselves and their data during the time following the revolution.

Syrian government arrests Bassel Khartabil on the 1st anniversary of the revolution and executes hims three years after.

During the first year of the Syrian Revolution, Khartabil's activities included the training of Syrian activists in digital security techniques and using satellite Internet to secure their communication with media outlets and international organizations outside of Syria. The issue of securing access to Internet networks for everyone, without restrictions, had been one of Khartabil's main priorities since before the revolution.

Khartabil’s wife, Noura Ghazi, spoke to SMART about Khartabil's ambitions. She said, "Bassel's wish was to offer everyone the right to access to the Internet for free, without being under surveillance, and for everyone to have access to knowledge, freedom of expression, and forming their own opinion."

On March 15, 2012, Syrian government security services arrested Khartabil on the first anniversary of the revolution. Khartabil's arrest happened two weeks before his wedding to the lawyer Noura Ghazi, which was supposed to take place on April 1, 2012.

Noura says that Khartabil was at constant risk of arrest, but “it came at a really critical time, as we were busy preparing for our wedding. Another factor that made the timing of the arrest more difficult for me was that I was in hiding at the time."

Noura added, "I was able to visit Bassel in prison, and we agreed to get married while he was still in prison. The story of our marriage is similar to that of Palestinian women who marry their loved ones during their captivity in Israeli occupation prisons. Bassel was a Palestinian-Syrian captive in a Syrian government prison.”

Noura also added that the first months following Khartabil's arrest were very difficult, but she was able to visit him in Adra Prison in Damascus, adding that she was very happy to visit him despite the poor conditions. However, Khartabil was relocated in late 2015, and Noura did not receive any information about his whereabouts, nor was she able to visit him. Once again, Noura was put into a state of fear and worry.

The Syrian government executed Khartabil just days after informing Noura of his relocation, however they did not tell her about the execution. In the two years that followed, Noura did not receive any new news of Khartabil's fate. She said that if or when she found out about his execution, she would cause a stir as she informed the whole world of the injustice.

As rumors of Khartabil's execution emerged and were confirmed, Noura felt that she could not keep the news to herself. She said, "I was aware that the repercussions of his execution would not go by unnoticed”. She continued, "...not because he is better than the rest of prisoners, but because I was aware that I could make the whole world listen and respond to the news." Noura added that her work as a lawyer working for the rights of political prisoners pushed her to talk about the violations of human rights taking place in Syrian prisons.

Noura also commented, "I was not scared of anything after Bassel was executed, I was willing to expose all practices that violate prisoners' rights. For me, this case is no longer unique to Bassel; it is the case of all prisoners who are executed in Syrian prisons, and whose families are scared to talk about the circumstances of their disappearing. Bassel's execution could be a means to protect the rest of the prisoners against the same fate.”

"I want to reach what I cannot"

While he was alive, Khartabil participated in many activities and was able to achieve what has been described as “enormous” achievements in his field of work. The most prominent of these was his participation in a project to allow everyone free access to the Internet in Syria. His other major achievement was the project to create a three-dimensional virtual copy of the Palmyra monuments, which he continued working on while in prison. After Khartabil's execution, more and more of his projects and ambitions are realised by the people that worked with him.

In February 2018, the Creative Commons organization launched the Bassel Khartabil research grant in Canada, to commemorate him and continue what he had started in the field of information and creativity. The organization has started accepting applications for the two financial grants, aiming to "encourage researchers to continue his legacy in the support and spirit of the Palestinian-Syrian activist, Bassel Khartabil, who defined the concept of an open and free Internet."

The organization describes the Bassel Khartabil grant as a fellowship of free culture that supports talented individuals and groups in developing open culture, or so-called "Cultural Commons", despite the oppressive conditions found in some societies. The organization added that the duration of this grant is one renewable year, and the amount is 50,000 US dollars in addition to the cover of expenses and other costs of the individual or group's project.

Khartabil’s wife Noura says that she does not want to forget what happened to her husband. Before the news of his death, Noura worked with his friends on the Free Bassel campaign, which called for his release. The Bassel Khartabil memorial grant was eventually created with the support of organizations and companies including Creative Commons, Mozilla Firefox, and Wikipedia.

Noura spoke of the grant, which bears the name of her husband, saying that the organization first thought to grant it to Syrians and Palestinians only, but she felt later that if Bassel had still been alive, he would have wanted the grant to be available to all nationalities. Noura wanted to do what Bassel would have done, so she made the grant accessible to all people from countries that suffer from conflict and oppression.

Noura considers this grant and a special institution for freedom of digital expression under the name "Bassel" a small attempt at continuing the work Bassel was pursuing. Noura added that “Bassel wanted to reach what he could not”, and he once drew her a picture with the words “I want to reach what I cannot”. She understands what he wanted to say more than she can say.

Noura finished by adding that she still has a deep desire to open many institutions to help people in the whole world in Bassel's name, and she also wishes for Bassel’s legacy to continue in this way. She believes that his legacy can have a positive effect on many people despite his death, because physical presence is not as important as his legacy, which exists and grows every day.