Syria: UN Calls for the Release of Freedom of Speech Advocate Bassel Khartabil
During its 72nd session held in Geneva on 20-29 April 2015, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) adopted an Opinion on the case of Bassel Khartabil, a fervent defender of the right to freedom of expression who has been detained without trial since his arrest by the military security on 15 March 2012. In this Opinion, the WGAD considers his detention "arbitrary" and calls for his immediate release.
An activist for freedom of expression and peaceful revolution
Bassel Khartabil, a 34-year-old Palestinian-born information technology professor and software engineer, has been instrumental in spreading the use of open web technologies across the Arab world, and advocating for a free internet, by building knowledge of digital literacy and education about social media and open-source tools.
Through his innovations on social media, he was credited with opening up the internet in Syria and was awarded the Index on Censorship Digital Freedom Award in 2013. When massive protests broke out again Bachar Al Assad's regime in 2011, he was running a community technology space, or "hacker space" for youth called Aiki Lab. The following year, he was ranked by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012 for "insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution."
Detained for over three years without trial after his arrest by the Military Security
On 15 March 2012, as he was leaving work in the Mezzeh district of Damascus, Khartabil was arrested by uniformed and plain-clothes members of the Military Security Branch 215 – commonly called the "Raid Brigade", a subsidiary division of the Military Intelligence – and taken to an unknown location. A week later, security forces came to his home with him, searched the entire house, and confiscated his computer and other documents. His family was not to hear from him for the following nine months.
On 26 December 2012, when they were finally able to contact him, Khartabil's relatives found him psychologically traumatised and in very bad physical condition. Khartabil had, in fact, suffered severe torture both in the premises of the Military Branch 215 where he had first been held for five days and of the Interrogation Division Branch 248 where he had been detained for the following month. He had then spent the following eight months, in Adra's central prison in the north-east outskirts of Damascus, where he had been kept in solitary confinement – a situation that he is still enduring to this day.
It is only on 9 December 2012, after nine months of secret detention, that Khartabil was brought before a military Prosecutor who had charged him with "spying for an enemy State" under Articles 272 and 274 of the Syrian Criminal Code, and referred his case to a military court. During the hearing, which only lasted a few minutes, the military prosecutor did not provided any evidence against Khartabil nor allowed him to present his defence. He did not have access to a lawyer either.
Today, Khartabil remains detained in Adra central prison and still awaits trial in extremely poor conditions of detention.
The UN calls for his release
Considering Khartabil's detention a flagrant case of arbitrary detention, and concerned over his physical and mental health, Alkarama referred his case to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) in September 2014. The UN Working Group issued its Opinion on 21 April 2015, concluding that his detention constituted a violation of Articles 9, 14 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – to which Syria is a party since 1969 – and calling for his release.
Not only did the UN Experts note that the Syrian Government had failed to present "any information that would indicate that Mr. Khartabil's peaceful non-violent activity constituted a threat to national security or public order" and, consequently, that his "deprivation of liberty applied on the sole ground of having committed such actions is arbitrary," but they also expressed concern over the fact that Khartabil had been detained incommunicado for nine months after his arrest and that he had been detained without trial for over three years. Moreover, his referral to a military court represented a violation of any civilian's right to be tried by a fair and independent tribunal "of such gravity" that it, in itself, was enough "to give the deprivation of liberty of Mr. Khartabil an arbitrary character."
Alkarama welcomes the WGAD's decision and calls upon the Syrian authorities to implement it immediately by freeing Bassel Khartabil.
"For 1,194 days, Bassel has been locked-up in Adra Prison, Syria. He is locked-out of anniversaries with his wife, birthdays with his parents, and fun with his friends around the world," says Jon Phillips, a close friend of his. "The irony of Bassel's lock-up is that he is locked-out of contributing to society. He is publicly reputable for his free volunteer work on Wikipedia, Mozilla Firefox, and Creative Commons. While news reports of the active destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, before Bassel digitally recreated the ancient city of Palmyra towards a larger project of rebuilding the city. While he is locked-up, he is locked-out of rebuilding Syria. Please join the #FREEBASSEL campaign to help unlock Bassel Khartabil."
To know more about Bassel's story, you can read the following book: Behind the Screens of the Syrian Resistance