Bassel Khartabil Safadi, a renowned Syrian advocate for democracy and open internet, was detained in 2012 by government authorities. He vanished from custody in October 2015, and was reportedly executed shortly thereafter ― but his family says they didn’t receive confirmation of this until Monday.
“He was executed just days after he was taken from Adra prison in October 2015,” Safadi’s widow, Noura, a human rights lawyer, wrote Tuesday on Facebook. “This is the end that suits a hero like him. Thank you for killing my lover. I was the bride of the revolution because of you. And because of you I became a widow. This is a loss for Syria. This is loss for Palestine. This is my loss.”
Noura said on Facebook that the Syrian government confirmed her husband’s death to her. It’s not clear why this confirmation is coming now, and the information has not been independently verified.
In a perverse way, Safadi’s loved ones are luckier than most in their situation, since they now appear to know what actually happened to him. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has detained tens of thousands of people since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011, and thousands are summarily killed every year. But for a family to receive any kind of formal death notice from the government is virtually unheard of.
Safadi was sentenced to death by a military field court during a secret hearing in Al-Qaboun, Damascus, Amnesty International said Wednesday in a statement. “These courts are notorious for conducting closed-door proceedings that do not meet the minimum international standards for a fair trial,” Amnesty noted.
Safadi’s case “is a prime example of Syria’s horrific justice system,” Sara Kayyali of Human Rights Watch wrote Wednesday. “Not only did the authorities torture and execute him, they also caused suffering to his family by keeping his fate secret.”
A Palestinian-born Syrian, Safadi worked as a coder and computer engineer in Damascus, where he founded a co-working space and online community called Aiki Lab in 2010.
He’s credited with “opening up the internet in Syria ― a country with a notorious record of online censorship,” and with “vastly extending online access and knowledge to the Syrian people,” according to Charles Tannock and Ana Gomes, two members of the European Parliament who honored Safadi’s work in 2013.
He was involved in a number of volunteer projects as well. He founded an initiative called New Palmyra to preserve data about the ancient city, and represented Syria in working with Creative Commons, a nonprofit devoted to open internet. He was also an active contributor to Wikipedia.
While Safadi was detained at Damascus’ Adra prison from 2012 to 2015, Noura wrote him love poems. He filled his days by translating the poems, which were published last year in a book titled Waiting.
Foreign Policy magazine named Safadi one of its top 100 global thinkers of 2012 “for insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution” and for spreading news of the country’s upheaval via the internet. Index on Censorship gave Safadi its 2013 Digital Freedom Award for his work promoting a free and open internet. In 2015, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab even offered him a research scientist position.
Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, has been involved in efforts to raise awareness about Safadi’s detention for years. His foundation helped launch a #WhereIsBassel campaign on the fourth anniversary of his arrest.
Tributes to Safadi, who would have been 36 this Thursday, poured in from all corners of the globe this week.
“I am saddened and outraged in equal measure,” Wales tweeted on Tuesday.
“Around the world, activists and advocates seek the sharing of culture, and open knowledge,” Creative Commons said in a statement. “Creative Commons, and the global commons of art, history, and knowledge, are stronger because of Bassel’s contributions, and our community is better because of his work and his friendship. His death is a terrible reminder of what many individuals and families risk in order to make a better society.”
He also wrote letters to friends while in prison. On April 4, 2014, he wrote to his friend Mohamad Najem about how he spent his time translating books from English into Arabic. He asked Najem about helping him find a translation job:
New Palmyra’s director, Berry Threw, honored his legacy by tweeting a photo of a beaded coin purse in the shape of the Mozilla Firefox logo that Safadi made while in prison:
Safadi’s story is, in certain respects, an exception to the rule. While he was detained in Adra, Noura was able to visit him three times a week. Now, even though it took two years, she appears to finally have confirmation about what happened to her husband. By contrast, tens of thousands of Syrians haven’t seen their family members since they were arrested, and the fates of those people remain totally unknown.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, more than 117,000 people have been detained since the uprising began. It’s also estimated that 17,723 people died in Syrian prisons between March 2011 and August 2016, according to Amnesty International.
The Sednaya prison outside Damascus is notorious for reportedly having secretly executed thousands of political prisoners ― using tactics including torture, beatings, hangings and starvation ― since 2011, an Amnesty report from February revealed. The U.S. State Department said in May that it believes the prison also contains a crematorium where bodies are disposed of en masse.
The Syrian government has devised a system whereby it forges paperwork claiming that detainees have appeared in court and been found guilty, Amnesty said, which then clears the way for executions.
Safadi’s apparent fate “is a grim reminder of the horrors that take place in Syrian prisons every day,” Amnesty said this week. “The tens of thousands of people currently locked away inside Syrian government detention facilities face torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to describe Aikilab’s business model more accurately as a coworking space and online community, rather than a company.