The brilliant life and brutal death of Bassel Khartabil, killed by Assad for writing free software

Bassel Khartabil was a Syrian free software, free speech and Creative Commons activist who was jailed and tortured by the Assad regime, which eventually secretly sentenced him to death, then executed him in 2015, but kept it a secret until 2017.

Alice Su's long, heartrending biography of Bassel in Wired draws on interviews with comrades who shared cells and cellblocks with Bassel, first-hand accounts of torture and bravery, extraordinary perseverance and resilience. It also shines a light on Bassel's idealism and the challenge that free, open internet infrastructure poses to authoritarian regime.

Khartabil wrote to friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, finding the humor to make fun of the prison guards’ tech ignorance: “I’m living in a place where no one knows anything about tech, but sometimes the management of the jail face problems on their win-8 computers, so they bring me to solve it so I get a chance to spend few hours every month behind a screen disconnected. Also I had to write them a small app for fingerprint recognition ones, and it had to be on visual basic since there is no other real language installed, it was my first time with Microsoft, so it took me two hours to learn their technology, four hours to write the code, and one minute to hate it. Don’t tell anyone of that ”

He also wrote: “Of my experience spending three years in jail so far for writing open source code (mainly) I can tell how much authoritarian regimes feel the danger of technology on their continuity, and they should be afraid of that. As code is much more than tools, it’s education that opens youth minds and moves the nations forward. Who can stop that? No one…. As long as you people out doing what you are doing, my soul is free. Jail is only a temporary physical limitation.”

Khartabil asked Najem to create an anonymous blog and Twitter account for him, titled “Me in Syrian jail,” and wrote out 140-character-or-less tweets on paper, which were then smuggled to his Lebanese friend for typing and posting. “We can’t fight jail without memory and imagination #Syria #MeinSyrianJail,” he tweeted on April 5, 2014.