Open-source advocate and Wikipedian Bassel Khartabil has been taken from a Syrian prison and brought to an unknown location. Photo by Christopher Lee Adams, public domain.
The ancient city of Palmyra in Syria has been targeted for destruction by the extremist group ISIL (or ISIS). Bassel Khartabil, an open-source advocate and Wikipedian who was determined to digitally preserve the city for future generations, has been detained by the Syrian government for three years. He was recently moved out of the prison where he was being held; his current location is unknown.
Palmyra has been described as “one of the most renowned archaeological sites in the world,” and “home to some of the world’s most magnificent remnants of antiquity.” Recognized as a World Heritage Site since 1980, artifacts found at this desert oasis have been dated to as far back as the Neolithic period, about 9,500 years ago. As a crossroads along a main east-west trade route, the city played an outsized regional role for many years, dating to the third century BCE. Many of the city’s ruins remain unexcavated, but archaeological digs have been halted since the onset of the Syrian Civil War.
In May 2015, the ancient city was taken by ISIL, which is notable not only for its conquest of large swathes of the Syria and Iraq but also for their destruction of cultural heritage. While the group initially stated it would spare the much of the site, destroying only monuments that they found “polytheistic,” they have subsequently razed even ruins without religious significance. A Roman amphitheater has been used for executions, and an eminent Syrian archaeologist known as “Mr. Palmyra” was beheaded in August following a month of torture. On October 6, it was confirmed that ISIL had destroyed the Arch of Triumph—a triple arch constructed by the Romans in the second century CE to commemorate a victory over Persian forces.
Years before these events, Bassel was working to digitally capture Palmyra’s splendor and heritage, as part of his commitment to sharing freely with the world. In 2008, Bassel started a project that joined existing satellite photos and other resources into a single “world” file, rendering the city’s magnificent monuments and ruins in 3D. His efforts have gone unfinished since his incarceration: only sixteen photos from his efforts are available on the Internet Archive, though more data will be released into the public domain on newpalmyra.org on October 15 by Bassel’s friend and collaborator, Jon Phillips.
When Bassel was not busy sharing his country’s cultural treasures, he is a software developer known for being instrumental in the development of the open-source movement in the Arabic-speaking world. He was an early and frequent, if anonymous, contributor to Arabic Wikipedia. He built and led the Creative Commons (CC) Syria project, becoming an advocate for not just CC but for Ubuntu, Wikipedia, and the free web in general. The now-former CC chief Catherine Casserly wrote in 2013 that Bassel “worked tirelessly to build knowledge of digital literacy, educating people about online media and open-source tools.” At the launch of CC’s Arabic-language CC licenses, he was credited with playing a “pivotal role” in their adoption.
Bassel was also a major contributor to open-source initiatives such as Mozilla and Openclipart; Bassel’s Aiki Framework still powers the latter. He co-founded the web design company Fabricatorz with Jon Phillips, and helped found Aiki Lab, a community technology and cultural space in Damascus that hosted thought leaders and luminaries from open culture, including Mitchell Baker, Chairwoman and CEO of Mozilla. Many young people in Damascus learned about sharing and open culture through Aiki Lab, and Bassel could often be found there at all hours of the day, as it had faster Internet than he had at home.
On March 15, 2012, Bassel disappeared while traveling to the Mazzeh district of Damascus. It was the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the country’s civil uprising and just weeks before he planned to marry his fiance, human rights lawyer Noura Ghazi. It is unclear how he was identified and what circumstances led to his detention.
For the past three years, Bassel has been held in the city’s Adra prison, charged with “spying for an enemy state” under the Syrian Criminal Code. The United Nations found (PDF, p. 75) that the many allegations of Bassel’s torture, ill-treatment, and lack of access to a lawyer amounted to a violation of his basic human rights. A recent opinion from the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention also found that his “deprivation of liberty” had an “arbitrary character.” Although circumstances of his imprisonment had been difficult—Adra has been characterized as “infamous” by the Washington Post—it was at least located in Damascus, near Bassel’s friends and family. Bassel and Noura were married in January 2013, with the groom still behind bars.
According to Noura, Bassel was told on October 3rd by military police to pack his belongings for departure under a “sealed order from the field court.” Fearing his fate, he gave his wedding ring and cell phone to a friend and fellow prisoner before leaving. His family has no further information about his current status or location.
Bassel’s close friend and former coordinator for Creative Commons in the Arab world, Donatella Della Ratta, says that she and Noura are very worried about Bassel. They fear that he is facing a summary trial with no legal representation. “We need to know where he is,” said Donatella, “and we call for his immediate release from detention.” On Facebook, Noura wondered, “how many times should I go back to feel the same terror, worry, and fear from the unknown?”
At the Wikimedia Foundation, we celebrate and Bassel’s commitment to free knowledge and open culture. As a member of the global Wikimedia community, we are concerned about his safety and support efforts to see him free again soon.
More information is available on freebassel.org, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, FreeBasselSafadi on Facebook, and @freebassel on Twitter. Tweets can be tagged with #freebassel, and you can sign a solidarity petition to express your support on Change.org.