News Middle East

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Bassel lived for a peaceful and open Syria - so they killed him

Syrian President Bashar Assad casts his ballot next to his wife Asma at a polling station during a referendum on the new constitution, in Damascus, Syria. Photo: AP
Syrian President Bashar Assad casts his ballot next to his wife Asma at a polling station during a referendum on the new constitution, in Damascus, Syria. Photo: AP

Mary Fitzgerald

On December 17, 2011, as peaceful protests across Syria were being brutally snuffed out by the Assad regime, a young activist in Damascus posted a tweet which read: "They can't stop us".

The then-30-year-old campaigner was named Bassel Khartabil Safadi, born to a Syrian mother and Palestinian father. In the years before the 2011 uprising began, he had worked tirelessly to open his long-repressed homeland to the outside world through the internet.

Bassel Safadi and his wife Noura.
Bassel Safadi and his wife Noura.

This week his wife Noura said she had received confirmation of what she had long feared: that Safadi had been secretly executed in a regime prison shortly after she lost contact with him almost two years ago.

Six years after the anti-regime protests that later quickened into civil war began, it is easy to forget people like Bassel Khartabil Safadi in the midst of a multi-faceted conflict that many now reduce simplistically to Assad versus extremists. The Assad regime - which pushed the narrative its opponents were all jihadists from the outset - would prefer it that way.

But there were and are many like Safadi among Syria's dead, its imprisoned, and its exiled. The UN puts the overall death toll from the grinding Syrian war at more than 400,000. According to human rights groups, more than 100,00 have vanished into the regime's notorious prisons where detainees are subjected to unspeakable horrors in what Human Rights Watch calls "a web of facilities amounting to a torture archipelago". Some five million Syrians have been forced to flee their country.

Trained as a computer engineer, Safadi later became a successful internet entrepreneur in Syria, driven by a belief in technology as a force for change. A 2014 European Parliament report described him as being "credited with opening up the internet in Syria and vastly extending online access and knowledge to the Syrian people".

He worked on open software projects with Wikipedia and Creative Commons, bringing together like-minded Syrians who shared his passion. In 2011, he lent his skills and expertise to the ad hoc peaceful protest movement then inspired by what was happening elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, where people power in the form of mass demonstrations had led to the ousting of dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Safadi's activism brought him to the attention of regime security forces and he was forced to go underground. In March 2012, he was arrested and held in an unofficial detention facility run by Syria's feared military intelligence. That December he was transferred to Adra prison in Damascus where his wife Noura was able to visit him.

They were told he would be tried in a military field court - where proceedings are secret and defendants have no legal representation or right to appeal - for his activism. Safadi appeared before a field court in December 2012 but never heard a verdict. He remained in Adra until October 2015 when he was apparently moved to an undisclosed location. His family was kept in the dark about his fate until this week when Noura learned he had been killed soon after.

"Words are difficult to come by while I am about to announce, on behalf of Bassel's family and mine, the confirmation of the death sentence and execution of my husband," Noura wrote in a Facebook post this week. "This is the end that suits a hero like him. This is a loss for Syria. This is a loss for Palestine. This is my loss."

Safadi had been lauded internationally: 'Foreign Policy' magazine named him one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012, praising him "for insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution" and the following year the Index on Censorship awarded him its Digital Freedom Award. He had been working on the New Palmyra Project, in which he used open source information to digitally recreate the storied ancient city of Palmyra, later taken over and partly destroyed by Isil. The MIT Media Lab had offered him a position as research scientist. Many of those organisations paid tribute to Safadi this week. "Bassel lived and died for his belief in transparency and a free internet," said the Index on Censorship. "His death is a terrible reminder of what many individuals and families risk in order to make a better society," said Creative Commons.

There are many like Safadi still languishing in the dank prisons and unofficial detention facilities of the Assad regime. Several anti-regime activists who shared Safadi's zeal for peaceful change point out the irony that at the same time the Assad regime was rounding up such activists, it was also releasing hundreds of hardline Islamists, including several notorious jihadists, from Syria's jails, many of whom later became prominent in the war. One of the many ironies in a conflict that has changed Syria, and the wider region, forever.

Irish Independent

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