Syria: Renewed calls for Bassel Khartabil’s release on fourth anniversary of detention

bassel creative

Syria’s authorities should reveal the whereabouts of Bassel Khartabil, a software developer and free speech activist, and release him immediately, 31 organisations said on the fourth anniversary of his detention.

On 15 March 2012, Military Intelligence arrested Khartabil and held him in incommunicado detention for eight months before moving him to ‘Adra prison in Damascus in December 2012. During this time, he was subjected to torture and ill-treatment. He remained in ‘Adra until 03 October 2015, when he managed to inform his family that he was being transferred to an undisclosed location. Since then his whereabouts remain unknown and there are serious concerns for his life.

Based on unconfirmed information that the family received from some local sources, there are fears that he may have been tried and sentenced to death by a Military Field Court in the Military Police headquarters in Al-Qaboun, Damascus. These courts are notorious for conducting closed-door proceedings that do not meet minimum international standards for a fair trial.

Since his detention, many human rights groups have campaigned for his release. On 21 April 2015, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared his detention a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and called for his release, yet the Syrian authorities refuse to free him.

A Syrian of Palestinian parents, Khartabil is a 34-year-old computer engineer who worked to build a career in software and web development. Before his arrest, Khartabil used his technical expertise to help advance freedom of speech and access to information via the internet. He has won many awards, including the 2013 Index on Censorship Digital Freedom Award for using technology to promote an open and free internet, and was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012 “for insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution”.

The signatory organisations express concern at his ongoing arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance and believe that it is a direct result of his peaceful and legitimate work for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression.

The groups call on the authorities in Syria to:

  1. Immediately disclose the whereabouts of Bassel Khartabil and grant him access to a lawyer of his choice and to his family;
  2. Ensure that he is protected from torture and other ill-treatment;
  3. Immediately and unconditionally release him;
  4. Release all detainees in Syria held for exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression and association.


1. Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)
2. Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
3. Amnesty International
4. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
5. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
6. English PEN
7. Euromed Rights (EMRHN)
8. Front Line Defenders (FLD)
9. Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR)
10. Human Rights Watch (HRW)
11. Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (HIVOS)
12. Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM)
13. International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)
14. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
15. International Media Support (IMS)
16. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
17. Iraqi Association for the Defence of Journalists’ Rights (IJRDA)
18. International Media Support (IMS)
19. Index on Censorship
20. Jordan Open Source Association (JOSA)
21. Lawyers Rights Watch Canada
22. Metro Centre to Defend Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan
23. No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ)
24. PAX for Peace
25. PEN International
26. Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
27. Samir Kassir Foundation
28. Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights (SAF)
29. Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression
30. The Day After
31. Tunisian Initiative for Freedom of Expression
32. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
33. Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC)

Bassel Khartabil: Four years since arrest of Palestinian-Syrian online freedom activist


Four years have passed since Palestinian-Syrian software developer Bassel Khartabil (aka Bassel Safadi) was arrested in Damascus. Following the protests that swept the country in 2011, Syria descended into civil war, leading to a conflict which has now claimed over 250,000 lives. Khartabil was detained on 15 March 2012, the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising, as he left work in the al-Mezzeh district of the city.

The online activist was tortured for five days by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and was then tried without having access to a lawyer by a military court on charges of “harming state security”. His trial lasted a matter of minutes.

Back in 2010, Khartabil started Syria’s first hackerspace, Aiki Lab, in Damascus. It was a base from which he helped advance the open source movement in Syria. Khartabil is also known for his work on free culture projects such as Creative Commons and Mozilla Firefox, and was an avid contributor and editor to Wikipedia. Prior to his arrest, he was working on software to enable the free flow of information in a country where online communications and networks were closely monitored by the government.

Because of his efforts using technology to promote an open and free internet — especially in Syria, where online censorship is rife and access to knowledge is scant — Khartabil won the 2013 Index on Censorship Digital Freedom Award. In 2012, Foreign Policy magazine named him as one of the top 100 global thinkers.

basselUntil 3 October 2015, he was being held at Adra Prison in Damascus by the Syrian government. Without prior warning, he was moved to an unknown location, although there is speculation he may have been transferred to the Military Field Court in Qaboun. On 12 November 2015, Khartabil’s wife, Noura Ghazi Safadi, reported rumours that her husband had been sentenced to death by the military courts, although the Assad regime has yet to confirm or deny the reports.

“I’ve just gotten disturbing and shocking news that Bassel has been sentenced to death. I think this means that the transfer to military prison was very dangerous. I really don’t know other news. May God help him, we hope it’s not too late. We are worried sick about his life,” Ghazi Safadi wrote.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has deemed Khartabil’s imprisonment as arbitrary and in violation of international law. He has already spent four years unlawfully behind bars with very little contact with the outside world. He was married in prison and has spent four birthdays there.

We encourage you to join Index on Censorship in renewed calls for Khartabil’s immediate release. On Saturday 19 March, a worldwide demonstration in support of Khartabil will take place, including a protest at Marble Arch in London.

In the run-up to the demonstration, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales advocated for Khartabil’s freedom. “The current case that I’m really, really campaigning for is the case of Bassel,” he said. “It’s a huge deal; go out and find out about it, but get involved in all of these cases.”

Khartabil’s absence has been felt not only by his family but by the communities he has worked so hard to foster. We must not forget the contributions this champion of free speech has made to digital freedoms.