Syrian-Palestinian Online Activist Bassel Khartabil Confirmed Dead Years After Arrest in Syria

Khartabil, who spearheaded web activism in the Arab world, was executed five years after being arrested by the Assad regime, his wife says

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Bassel Khartabil in Seoul, June 5, 2010.
Bassel Khartabil in Seoul, June 5, 2010. Credit: Joi Ito / Wikimedia Commons
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

Bassel Khartabil, a Syrian-Palestinian programmer who helped bring online activism to the Arab world, has been executed five years after being arrested by the Assad regime, internet groups he worked with said Wednesday.

Creative Commons, an international internet organization Khartabil worked for, reported that Khartabil had died, citing his wife, Noura Ghazi. Khartabil was 36 and his whereabouts had been unknown for two years.

He was executed in 2015 by the Syrian regime after he was secretly sentenced to death, reported Global Voices, a citizen journalism project.

“In November 2015, Bassel’s wife reported that she was contacted by people who identified themselves as Assad government insiders,” Global Voices said late Tuesday. “They told Noura Ghazi that her husband had been sentenced to death, but offered no further information. Bassel’s whereabouts and condition were unknown until today, when Noura learned from Syrian officials that he was executed in 2015.”

In 2012, Foreign Policy chose Khartabil as one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers “for insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution.” It was around that time that he was arrested during a protest in Damascus marking the first anniversary of the uprising against the Assad regime.

Khartabil headed Creative Commons in Syria and was an active editor and contributor to Wikipedia, along with a slew of other open online initiatives. His work included an effort to digitize the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra. In April, Creative Commons created a printed 3D version of one of the city’s monuments in his honor.

A friend, Jon Phillips, published a handwritten letter in March purportedly written by Khartabil in 2014. In the letter, Khartabil said he was being held at Adra Prison under harsh conditions, including detention in the dark for hours. He was taken there nine months after his arrest.

Letter by Bassel Khartabil from Adra prison in Syria from March 2014 and published by Jon Phillips, a friend and activist from the #FreeBassel campaign Credit:
Letter by Bassel Khartabil from Adra prison in Syria from March 2014 and published by Jon Phillips, a friend and activist from the #FreeBassel campaign Credit:

Following his arrest, Khartabil was reportedly interrogated and tortured while his house was raided and his computer confiscated.

But in October 2015 he was moved again and all contact with him was lost. Rumors of his death circulated amid reports that his name was taken off the Syrian regime’s register of political prisoners.

At the time, he was also offered a research position at the MIT media lab’s Center for Civic Media.

“Bassel, I am very afraid, I am afraid about the country that is being slaughtered, divided, bleeding, being destroyed," his wife wrote him in an open letter published at the time. "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.”

After he was reported missing, the online campaign #FreeBassel was launched by the Jimmy Wales Foundation, headed by Wikipedia’s cofounder. Creative Commons also lobbied to have him released, getting the European Union, United Nations and United States to join its cause.

“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,” the EU parliament wrote in 2012.

On Human Rights Day in 2015, the U.S. State Department singled him out as a prisoner of conscience.

“His numerous and impactful contributions to the open web and the commons have always inspired collaboration, community and the sharing of culture and knowledge,” the Jimmy Wales Organization said in a statement following news of his death.

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