22nd Oct 2016

Family of Syria Internet guru appeals for EU help

  • Safadi: 'The people who are in real danger never leave their countries. They are in danger for a reason' (Photo: Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli)

The family of one extraordinary Syrian man facing life in prison has appealed to the EU for diplomatic assistance.

"We need the urgent support of the European Union. This is our call to the European External Action Service, and all EU institutions, for diplomatic intervention to secure the release of Bassel Safadi. Bassel represents the ordinary man in Syria who has done extraordinary things for his country: opening up the Internet. Your immediate action can save him. Thank you," Alrifai, the victim's uncle, said in the letter.

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Bassel Safadi, a.k.a. Khartabil, is a Palestinian-born Syrian open-source software engineer.

The 31-year-old has been in the vanguard of Internet freedom for more than half his life.

Learning to programme at 15, he lent his professional skills to several volunteer projects in Syria and beyond: Creative Commons, Mozilla, Wikipedia, Fabricatorz and Sharism.

He is widely credited for enabling Syrian people to access normal online information and services.

In Syria, where strict Internet censorship, backed up by surveillance tools bought from European companies, is used as a tool of repression, his work has made him a revolutionary.

Leading US magazine Foreign Policy recently ranked him as the 19th most influential thinker in the world in 2012 (ahead of the euro's central banker, Mario Draghi, in 20th place).

The Index on Censorship, the UK-based pro-free-speech group, this year also nominated him for its digital freedom prize for "advancing open source and related technologies to ensure a freer Internet."

On 15 March last year - precisely one year ago - he was arrested in Damascus.

His house had already been bombed and he had already been taken in by police and tortured in the past. But he refused to flee his home country.

In one of his last tweets before his arrest, he said: "The people who are in real danger never leave their countries. They are in danger for a reason and for that they don't leave #Syria."

He was recently moved from a military prison, where he risked court martial, to a civilian one.

But he still faces a life sentence.

During the past year of his incarceration, nobody has brought formal charges against him, nobody has been allowed to give him legal assistance, he has been physically and psychologically tortured and, until recently, his family was not allowed to see him.

They say he is in bad shape.

But he credits a series of campaigns set up by his friends in the online community, academia and by human rights NGOs - #FreeBassel, #FastForBassel and - with helping to sustain his will to live.

"Dear friends, I cannot find words to describe my feelings about everything you did for me, what you did saved me and changed my situation for the better," he recently wrote in a short message from behind bars.

Responding to the family's appeal, EU foreign service spokeswoman Maja Kocjiancic said: "The EU calls on the regime to free political prisoners, in particular peaceful activists, women and children."

For her part, Dutch Liberal MEP Marietje Schaake, noted that EU foreign policy should protect the kind of work that Safadi was doing.

"The frontline in the struggle for human rights is increasingly digital. On the one hand people can access information and freely express themselves or assemble online. At the same time, the empowerment of individuals frightens those in power and has led to mass surveillance, tracking and tracing of dissidents. The EU needs to lead globally in defending and advancing digital freedoms," she said.

With some European companies, such as Sweden's Ericsson, profiting on sales of "dual-use" technology - Internet surveillance tools - to Iran and Syria, Schaake also called for export curbs.

She did not name Ericsson in her comments.

But she noted: "Repressive regimes are using mass surveillance technologies. The very least we should do is to end the export of the most aggressive ones that are made in Europe and used to violate human rights."

Meanwhile, other observers of EU and UN inaction on Syria in the past two years are coming to bleak conclusions.

Adama Dieng, the UN secretary general's adviser on prevention of genocide, spoke out earlier this month on the publication of a report on what the EU is doing to implement the UN principle of "responsibility to protect."

"The [UN Security] Council is failing the people of Syria," he said.

Gaja Pellegrini-Bettoli is a US/Italian freelance journalist based in Brussels

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