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The Agony of Syria's Prisons

The Fate of Bassel Khartabil

Bassel Khartabil
Bassel Khartabil was a important figure in the open source Internet scene, contributing to Creative Commons, Wikipedia and Mozilla Firefox. Photograph: Christopher Adams

Bassel Khartabil was an influential internet figure and activist in the Syrian revolution. Imprisoned, his wife Noura Ghazi Safadi clung to hope that he would survive.

This article was first published in early 2016 in the zenith print edition, when the fate of Bassel Khartabil was unknown, describing the tribulations of his wife as she searched for answers about his whereabouts and survival. On 1 August, she confirmed that Bassel had been executed by Assad's regime in October 2015. 

Noura Ghazi Safadi lives for jail. It is where she has spent perhaps the most time in her life, where the people she loves have lived. It has been the hub of her life, the place she has worked, been married and made plans, even though she herself has never been imprisoned. For 22 years the 34-year-old has been going in and coming out, to visit others. It’s been nearly four years since Noura’s husband, Bassel, didn’t come home. “When someone disappears in Syria, we automatically assume they’ve been arrested – that’s completely normal here,” she says.


The human rights lawyer knows, from many years of personal and professional experience with prisoners, what’s in store for her. She has been taking care of family, friends and acquaintances in jail since she was 13. For 12 years she has been representing political prisoners in court.


A few days after his disappearance, Noura discovered her husband is being held in a military prison. There’s zero explanation for the detention from official quarters – it doesn’t work like that in Syria. Information on the whereabouts or status of political prisoners isn’t simply made public, or even shared with relatives, but trickles and ripples through a network of people who know someone who knows some-one.


'What have they done with the man whose genius can rebuild Palmyra?"
This article was originally published in 2016 under the title 'What have they done with the man whose genius can rebuild Palmyra?"

Dissidents were also snatched in Syria before the civil war. Bassel was interrogated and tortured for ten months before he was transferred to Adra, the central prison in Damascus, and officially charged.


What is Bassel Khartabil accused of? He’s a political activist, a threat to national security – easily enough for a life sentence. Even before the Arab Spring, the 34-year-old software developer was campaigning for a free Internet. As a programmer and hacktivist he contributed to open-source projects including Wikipedia and Firefox, and was the Syrian head of the Creative Commons initiative for placing media content in the public domain.


He was also instrumental in the New Palmyra Project, which reconstructed 3D models of the historical site, based on photographs taken by Bassel. But what led to his imprisonment was putting his ideals for a free Internet in the service of non-violent revolution and supporting the work of other activists with his technical knowhow. For his peaceful resistance, in 2012 US magazine Foreign Policy named Bassel one of the most influential minds on the planet.


“In Syria it’s more dangerous to have a mobile phone on you than a nuclear bomb”



The regime cannot tolerate people helping each other and standing together against subjugation – that’s how fellow activist Fadi explains the repressive measures of the Syrian state towards the population. He knows Bassel from the activist scene and is a friend of Noura’s. “Bassel set up secure connections for digital communication and information ex- change and used his connections to link up other activists with each other, as well as with Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. On top of that, he spoke publicly at demonstrations,” says Fadi.


Bassel knew what he was letting himself in for, that peaceful resistance would be penalised in the same way as military opposition. He’s believed to have once said that in Syria it’s more dangerous to have a mobile phone on you than a nuclear bomb. Even humanitarian impulses such as organising food or medicine for fellow humans in need counts among the crimes the regime will charge its people with, deeming this to be active opposition to the authority of the state.


Because the civilian populace is so well organised, Noura found out at the beginning of October 2015 that a military court has sentenced her husband to death, after a perfunctory five-minute trial. Since that time, all trace of Bassel has been lost. This is perhaps the worst thing about the Assad regime’s handling of political activists: the agonising uncertainty. “It eats you up,” says Fadi.


Meanwhile, the trade in hope is booming, and it’s the relatives of the seized who pay. “Assad’s system sells, on the black market through middlemen, information about prisoners’ place of detention and status,” he says. “People sell their belongings, their houses and borrow money from friends for a single piece of information about a disappeared family member.”


Noura hadn’t given up hope, and she refused to believe in a death sentence. “Bassel is far too prestigious a political prisoner, it would be pretty unwise to execute him after four years.” She’s still holding on to their common cause and to a shared future. Fadi begs to differ. “Irrational and capricious decisions are typical for the Assad regime,” he says.


An epitome of the common ideal of a free Syria is the way Noura and Bassel met and fell in love: on a demonstration in Duma, near Damascus, in April 2011. This is quite a tradition in Noura’s family, the Ghazis. Her parents met the same way, over 40 years earlier. At that time, the man who would later become Noura’s uncle hid her future father in his house when Hafez Al-Assad’s thugs wanted to arrest him after a protest. Later, just after Noura was born, her father, Marwan Ghazi, went into hiding for nine years – as an opposition politician and leader of the Democratic Arab Socialist Union (DASU), he had to keep away from the regime’s long reach. By then he’d already been incarcerated as a political prisoner eight times.


Then, in 1992, he was detained for the ninth time. 13-year-old Noura regularly visited her father and his companions in jail and vowed, as her father’s political heterodoxy was once again dealt with by the courts, that she’d become a lawyer and represent the oppressed Syrian people. It’s no surprise, bearing in mind the family history, that Noura’s sister also first met her partner at a demonstration.


Noura and Bassel’s wedding should have taken place a year to the day after they first met. But the activist was instead arrested two weeks before, on another anniversary: the beginning of the revolution on March 15, 2011. It’s wasn’t until he was transferred to Adra Prison that the two of them were able to sign the marriage papers.


Noura took every opportunity to visit her husband in jail. Three times a week she braved the security controls and body searches. “When we saw each other, everything else vanished: the bars between us, the guards around us, the cameras over us, the whole prison,” is how the young woman describes their divided bond. The two activists wrote thousands of love letters to each other, smuggling them in and out. In light of the present situation, those times seem blessed.


Adra remains a dangerous place, because of the bombs and rockets, the clashes between regime and opposition. The prison was stormed, after intense fighting, in September 2015 by the Islamist group Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) and two buildings in the women’s complex were captured. Around 9,000 political prisoners are held in the capital’s biggest jail, which has an official capacity of 5,000. Most of them are activists, major political figures and human rights advocates.


For a long time inside, Bassel managed to keep his morale high through all adversity, by reading, writing and painting. He taught his fellow prisoners maths and English and took care of them when they were suffering. Finally he himself became ill, body and mind buckling more and more under the strain. In the last months Noura saw him, he was in growing distress over Syria’s future: “It deeply affected him, how our country is being destroyed, how the people are slaughtered and split, and not being able to do anything about it hit him hard.”


“The regime is a machine, a bureaucracy of death that still functions.”


Beyond the prison bars, Damascene life was also getting harder and harder, with food and medicine costlier by the month, the danger from bombs and house-to-house fighting greater. Yet the hope for a free, democratic and peaceful Syria inspires Noura to fight on tirelessly. Even if she barely believes in it any more: “I fear that Syria will be divided and Assad will stay in place for a lot longer.” Has she ever thought about fleeing? “I could never live outside Syria. Everything that has meaning for me is here: my family and my work for the prisoners and their families.”


Noura lives in constant danger that she herself will be arrested. In the areas it controls, Assad’s system has never lost its eyes and ears. The Syrian secret service is so well informed about civilians that it’s like the civil war isn’t going on. “The regime is a machine,” says a resigned Fadi, “a bureaucracy of death that still functions.”


In the contested regions the surveillance was only abandoned at the very last. In Raqqa and other cities the regime was still recording public life, right up to the final day before they were overrun by rebel forces, for instance in mosques. “Who was there for prayers, who wasn’t, members of the Ba’ath Party and what they did there – everything was noted,” says Fadi.


In the meantime, male civilians are press-ganged into Assad’s war. Men up to 45 years of age learn how to handle weapons in a two-week crash course before being sent to certain death at the front. Cities like Latakia and Damascus are almost empty of males, says Fadi, describing the extent of the forced conscriptions. For him, that explains why such a large part of the flow of refugees is made up of young men. “Nobody here has any great desire to fight,” he says. It’s also because of the forced recruitment that Fadi sees hardly any difference between the terror of Daesh and the terror of Assad’s state – apart from Assad still controlling much more territory and, because of this, having more deaths on his hands.  


Noura is fighting on, for her husband and for the cause of Syria, against all obstacles. What else can she do, after so much time? Despite her dwindling hopes, Noura still says: “In my life, prison means more to me than anything.” 

Susanne Kaiser