MIT Researcher Bassel Khartabil Reportedly Sentenced to Death in Syria

The Creative Commons advocate was helping create a digital reconstruction of a city ravaged by the so-called Islamic State.

Photo courtesy of MIT Media Lab

Photo courtesy of MIT Media Lab

Bassel Khartabil, a Syrian open-source software developer from Damascus, is believed to have been secretly sentenced to death by the Assad regime after being imprisoned in 2012.

Khartabil, a passionate advocate of Creative Commons and free culture, had been compiling photographs of Palmyra in order to create 3D reconstructions of the city’s historic ruins. Palmyra has since fallen into the hands of the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh, who have turned the UNESCO World Heritage Site and its ancient Roman amphitheater into a venue for its public executions.

The MIT Media Lab, joined by other activists, archivists, and archeologists, have continued Khartabil’s work though the New Palmyra Project. Director Joichi Ito, who publicly offered Khartabil a job at the Media Lab in October, wrote an impassioned post on Khartabil’s ordeal for the Huffington Post, in which he recounts an episode from 2009 during his time as Creative Commons CEO. Khartabil was Ito’s key to unlocking the Middle East’s treasure trove of art:

Bassel organized a dinner at an amazing Art hotel with local entrepreneurs and technology leaders and then a very special meeting with the artist community…At this meeting Bassel explained Creative Commons to the artists—that they could mark their works with our licenses and allow the public to freely use and share their works. One of the leaders and the owner of the house held up his wine in a toast and declared his works licensed under Creative Commons. One by one, the other artists also contributed their works. It was a truly amazing moment in a historical place, in a historical city with an amazing group—nothing quite like this had ever happened to Creative Commons and nothing like this had happened since. Bassel’s Damascus was clearly the cultural heart of the region.

Six year later, the country of roughly 17 million has been ravaged by civil war, as President Bashir al-Assad’s military and pro-government militias have slaughtered thousands.

“If you remember the early days of the civil unrest, it really was mostly well-educated, middle-class Syrians, who were pushing against the regime. Now, it’s deteriorated into ISIS,” Ito tells Boston magazine. “But at that moment, when I was there, it felt like there was so much potential. And especially for us, as open source and free culture, we thought it as all going to come out of Damascus, and then it just unwound.”

“It just sort of tracks how it deteriorated from Bassel and those guys being misunderstood and pushed around, to being thrown into jail, and then eventually ending up being collected up by military police and being rumored to have been executed,” he says.

Early on, Ito and his colleagues’ kept their public pleas for clemency positive, for fear that any statement that could be misconstrued negatively may hurt Khartabil case. Now, as hope for Khartabil wanes, Ito and others have grown louder.

“For a while, we were hoping they were going to let him go, and we know that when they review these cases, if you have relatives or if you have people outside of the regime that are disparaging to the regime, it impacts your case negatively,” Ito says. “They read all of the blogs, and they read all of the comments in court. And they use it as evidence of your insubordination and treasonous activity. So we’ve been careful.”

“I think at this point, since they sort of told us through his family that he’s been executed, we’re not being as nice.”

Ito wrote that insiders in the Assad government have recently informed Khartabil’s wife, human rights attorney Noura Ghazi, that her husband has been sentenced to death. Though information on his well-being and whereabouts is nearly impossible to come by, Ito is still calling for Khartabil’s immediate release.

“For them, things like Facebook and the Internet seem like subversive activities. I can only imagine how they must have misconstrued open source, free culture, and things like that,” Ito says. “To me, he represents a class of people who are imprisoned for very nonviolent and actually quite culturally constructive things that they’re doing for Syria, and they’re being tried without any due process at all.”