As It Happens

Cyber-activist Bassel Khartabil, believed executed in Syria, remembered as 'one of the great ones'

A friend and colleague remembers Bassel Khartabil, an open-source software advocate who has been credited with opening up internet access for the Syrian people
Syrian software pioneer Bassel Khartabil was executed in prison two years ago, his family has revealed. (Joi Ito, licensed under a CC BY 2.0 licence)

Story transcript

Under different circumstances, Bassel Khartabil could have been the next Steve Jobs, says digital rights activist Jon Phillips.

But instead, the Palestinian-Syrian software pioneer was taken from the streets of Damascus, thrown in prison and reportedly executed in secret as his friends and family wondered what had become of him. 

"He's one of the great ones and this is what happens when we don't support the great people around the world," Phillips, Khartabil's friend and colleague, told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"We have to always find the people who are the best and lift them up, not push them down. He could have done so many more things, but his light was extinguished."

Jon Phillips and Bassel Khartabil at the Creative Commons Summit in Warsaw in 2011. (Eric Steuer/Flickr/CC license 2.0)

Khartabil — an open-source software advocate who has been credited with opening up internet access for the Syrian people — was swept up in a wave of military arrests in March 2012.

In October 2015, he was abruptly transferred to an undisclosed location and all communications with the outside world ceased.

His colleagues say his trial was held in secret, and the cause for his arrest was never given.

His wife, Noura Ghazi Safadi wrote on Facebook late Tuesday that she has received confirmation that security services executed Khartabil in October 2015 after torturing him in prison.

"This is the end that suits a hero like him," she wrote. "Thank you for killing my lover. I was the bride of the revolution because of you. And because of you I became a widow."

The Syrian government has not confirmed his death.

When Khartabil was first arrested, Phillips co-founded the #FreeBassel campaign to spread the word.

Now the campaign is demanding answers about Khartabil's secretive incarceration and execution.

"We were never told. We never heard anything directly. We didn't receive a paper, nothing. We thought that he had been disappeared," Phillips said.

"And we're demanding the body. It's such a horrible thing to not be able to get the body and actually deal with it in the manner the family would like to."

The #FreeBassel campaign had supporters the world round. (Kennisland/Flickr/CC license 2.0 )

The activist's death has drawn widespread condemnation from open internet, freedom of speech and human rights advocates worldwide.

"We are deeply saddened and outraged at this awful news," said Anna Neistat, Amnesty International's senior director of research.

"Bassel Khartabil will always be remembered as a symbol of courage, who peacefully fought for freedom to the very end.

"His death is a grim reminder of the horrors that take place in Syrian prisons every day."

Khartabil was a champion and leading contributor to Arabic Creative Commons, a framework for coding and legal rights that promotes the open distribution of software and ideas.

He was one of the few people doing that kind of work on Syria, Phillips said, because "in that culture, information is dangerous."

"But the truth is that's where his family is. That's where his roots are," he said.

Phillips said he often implored Khartabil to leave the country, to no avail.

"He saw the issues and the problems in the region and he was trying to find ways to build it up. That's why he got into software," he said.

"He was trying to bring the San Francisco technology innovation that we see with startups, he wanted that for Damascus. He wanted that for Syria before any of this conflict started. So that was at the heart of what he was doing.​"


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