Credit: Joi Ito

On the death of Bassel Khartabil

by Joi Ito

I was devastated to learn yesterday that my friend Bassel Khartabil Safadi, a mentor, former colleague, and open source developer, was executed by the Syrian government. All of us at the Media Lab send our heartfelt condolences to his family, and join the community mourning this great loss.

I first met Bassel in 2009 while working at Creative Commons, an organization dedicated to open access to content on the Internet. Bassel was our main technical contact in the Middle East and he played a vital role in the open access movement in Syria. On a road trip from Beirut to Damascus, he boasted about the beauty and history of his hometown and it did not disappoint. I remember meeting his many interesting and eclectic friends: artists, architects, engineers, and how Bassel set up websites dedicated to their work. I appreciated his values, his humor, and his devotion to his country. Bassel was, above all, someone who loved Syria and worked to bring one of the oldest cities in the world into the 21st Century.

In 2015, when the rumor first spread that he had been sentenced to death (he’d been a political prisoner since 2012), Ethan Zuckerman and I publicly offered Bassel a research scientist position at the Center for Civic Media.

That would not come to pass. Yesterday, Bassel’s wife, human rights lawyer Noura Ghazi Safadi, learned from Syrian officials that he was executed more than 18 months ago. Ethan and I regret we were never able to welcome him to the Lab and to share his work in making Syria’s history and culture accessible to the world through digital preservation.

The last time I saw Bassel was at a Creative Commons event in Warsaw, not long before he was arrested for the fourth time, in 2012. (Bassel was arrested many times, and he told me his resolve grew after each arrest.) Credit: Bom Hee Lee | CC-BY-SA

Bassel’s family and peers were hopeful of his eventual release. The #FreeBassel campaign and humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International worked tirelessly to raise awareness about his unjust detention. Now that we know the sad truth, we will continue to work as a community to uphold the values to which Bassel dedicated his life.

Bassel Khartabil’s contributions to Creative Commons, Wikipedia, and other open-access endeavors are a testament to his commitment to the ideal of a global community, and the sharing of knowledge and culture across open channels. In his memory, we will continue to strive toward a more free, informed, and just world.

Bassel was an artist and culture advocate. He gave me four paintings which now hang in my home, one of which is pictured above. He also wrote many poems while in prison. More of Bassel’s artwork, and some of his poetry, is available in this album. Credit: Joi Ito | CC-BY 2.0

Read more about Bassel’s life and work, and the circumstances of his detention:

The New Palmyra Project, co-founded by Bassel

Artists and Writers Celebrate the Work of Missing Syrian Developer Bassel Safadi, June 2017

The story of Bassel Khartabil, Syrian prisoner who lives and risks dying for a free Internet, October 2015

Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012: Bassel Khartabil, “for insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution”

The 2013 Digital Freedom Award from Index on Censorship, for his work using technology to promote an open and free Internet