Bassel Khartabil is a Creative Commons and open source contributor in Damascus, Syria. He has been imprisoned for three years due to these activities. The MIT Media Lab has invited Bassel to join the Lab as a research scientist in the Center for Civic Media. There Bassel could continue his work building 3D models of the ancient city of Palmyra, the remains of which have been destroyed by ISIS.
Instead, word has recently come that Bassel has been secretly sentenced to death.
On December 10 Joi Ito, the Director of the MIT Media Lab, described how he and Creative Commons came to work with Bassel. Joi’s story is also the story of how I came to know and work with Bassel on open source projects. I’ve put some additional details of my experiences with Bassel below.
The Guardian has also written a detailed story of Bassels’ involvement with open culture and open source activities. Bassel was also explicitly mentioned by US Secretary of State John Kerry in the statement issued this December 10 to mark International Human Rights Day.
I initially met Bassel through joint activities with Creative Commons. Joichi Ito, then CEO of Creative Commons, invited me to join CC in their launch events in the Middle East. I accompanied Joi on the trip he describes in detail in his post linked above. My role was to add additional open source contacts and expertise to the group.
As Joi mentioned, the CC crew and I drove from Amman, Jordan to the Syrian border, and then from the border to Damascus. All except me, that is, who had visa issues when we arrived at the border. This was not really surprising to me since the idea that an American citizen could drive up to the Syrian border and get a visa on the spot seemed unimaginable to me. One of the organizers had been sure this would not be a problem however, so I joined the group. It didn’t take long at the border to realize it would would be a problem. Joichi asked one of the local CC contacts and one of the drivers to stay with me, giving me two Arabic speakers to help and a degree of comfort. The other car, driver and the rest of the CC team continued on to Damascus for the events Joi describes. In a moment of odd humor to defuse the tension, Joi named me the “hot potato” to be juggled.
I spent seven hours at the Syrian border while Bassel worked with authorities to get my visa situation sorted out. I was extremely lucky that the driver was an elegant and cultured gentleman, who told me stories and acted as my guide around the border buildings.
Meanwhile, Bassel was working like crazy to resolve my visa issues. This of course involved constant contact with the government authorities. I was fully prepared to learn it was not possible to continue –emotionally, anyway. I wasn’t really sure how I would get back to Amman, or if I had enough local currency to pay for the trip but I figured that the Creative Commons folks would help me get settled somehow.
At the end of the phone call Bassel kept saying that it would work out, it just needed time for him to talk with all the various people who needed to sign for my visa. To my surprise he was right.
Eventually all the necessary paperwork was obtained and the border authorities allowed me to continue to Damascus. After arriving in Damascus I attended the events Joi described, feeling very lucky to see Creative Commons and open source welcomed by a previously unknown community. It was clear that Bassel was focusing huge amounts of his life’s energy on serving these communities.
A year or two later I returned to Damascus on my own. Once again Bassel was my host. He arranged for me to meet with government officials. He did the same with a range of students, including the local organization of women programming students. He arranged for me to give talks at the university and at the local HackerSpace which he had founded. We talked about Open Source, learning to code and Creative Commons. Bassel worked to promote the open Internet and open culture. He pushed hard for inclusion of Arabic speakers in online life.
Bassel was arrested in March of 2012 when he returned to Syria after a Creative Commons conference. The Guardian article describes what has happened to Bassel after that arrest. And recently the warning that Bassel has been secretly sentenced to death has come.
Today I echo Joi’s call to the Internet community on behalf of Bassel Khartabil: “We ask for your help in calling attention to Bassel’s arbitrary detention and seeking his whereabouts and immediate release.”