The Wikimedia Foundation is profoundly saddened by the news of the death of Wikimedia community member and open culture advocate Bassel Khartabil, also known to some as Bassel Safadi. Our hearts go out to his family, friends, and communities around the world.
Bassel was detained by the Syrian government on March 15, 2012, amid arrests on the one-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising. He had been missing since October 2015, when he was removed from the Damascus prison where he was being held. We maintained hope that Bassel was safe and would ultimately be released by government captors. However, his wife, Syrian human rights lawyer Noura Ghazi Safadi, shared this week in a statement that he had been executed shortly after being taken from Adra prison.
Bassel was a leader, advocate, and member of many open culture communities; he had a pivotal role in the development of the open source movement in the Arabic-speaking world. In addition to his advocacy for and contributions to Wikimedia—many of which were made anonymously—he was project lead and public affiliate for Creative Commons Syria, a friend of the Global Voices community, a free software advocate and contributor to Mozilla, the founder of Aiki Lab hackerspace in Damascus, and much more.
Prior to his detainment, he was working on a 3D virtual reconstruction of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, much of which was destroyed by ISIL in 2016. His work to preserve, digitize, and replicate the ancient city has carried on through the efforts of #NEWPALMYRA, a collaboration of 3D modelers, archaeologists, artists, curators, developers, educators, journalists, researchers, and Wikimedians.
In 2014, the European Parliament credited Bassel with “opening up the Internet in Syria and vastly extending online access and knowledge to the Syrian people.” For its 2012 list of Top Global Thinkers, Foreign Policy named Bassel, together with Rima Dali, as #19 for “insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution.” On March 21, 2013, Bassel was selected for an award by the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards in the category of Digital freedom.
Bassel was known in the Wikimedia movement for his boundless enthusiasm and passion, always encouraging others to share, create, and connect with the world around them. In 2014, he worked with a friend to write anonymously from inside the prison where he was being held. In his inaugural post on the blog, Me in Syrian Jail, he asserted that he had been arrested for his writing, for his ideas. Despite the danger and difficulty, his writing has a sense of triumph, because the “government wanted to shut me up, because it failed and this blog is the [proof].” His tweets, from the same offline blogging project, reminded us that “We can’t fight jail without memory and imagination.”
Like Bassel, we believe in the power of writing, words, and memory. Every day, hundreds of millions of people visit free knowledge projects like Wikipedia, to learn, remember, and create. We gain from the generosity of Wikimedia contributors around the world, but very few of us pause to consider the challenges many of those contributors may face. The news of Bassel’s death is a painful reminder of the risk and difficulty so many people confront in simply exercising their fundamental rights to share and learn.
We believe that everyone should be able to speak freely and share freely. We believe that this commitment to expression, openness, and creativity is a reminder of our shared humanity, and the foundation for a better world. The global movement for open cultures and free knowledge is stronger because of Bassel’s contributions. We mourn his loss, and join his family, friends, and communities in honoring his memory. We remain dedicated to the values for which he lived.
Katherine Maher, Executive Director