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International rights groups fear for life of imprisoned Syrian free expression advocate

Bassel Khartabil is in an undisclosed location and may be facing a death sentence

Bassel Khartabil
Bassel Khartabil

Joi Ito / Flickr

This statement was originally published on pen-international.org on 19 November 2015.

Bassel Khartabil, a defender of freedom expression being held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance may be facing a death sentence, local and international organizations said today. His wife has received unconfirmed reports that a Military Field Court has sentenced him to death. His whereabouts should be disclosed immediately, and he should be released unconditionally, the groups said.

Military Intelligence detained Khartabil on March 15, 2012. He was held in incommunicado detention for eight months and was subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. He is facing Military Field Court proceedings for his peaceful activities in support of freedom of expression. A military judge interrogated Khartabil for a few minutes on December 9, 2012, but he had heard nothing further about his legal case, he told his family. In December 2012 he was moved to 'Adra prison in Damascus, where he remained until October 3, 2015, when he was transferred to an undisclosed location and has not been heard of since.

Reports that his wife received from alleged sources inside Military Intelligence suggest that since his disappearance he has been tried by a Military Field Court in the Military Police headquarters in al-Qaboun, which sentenced him to death. Military Field Courts in Syria are exceptional courts with secret closed-door proceedings that do not meet international fair trial standards. Defendants have no legal representation, and the courts' decisions are binding and not subject to appeal. People brought before such courts who were later released have said that proceedings are perfunctory, often lasting only minutes.

Khartabil is a software developer who has used his technical expertise to help advance freedom of speech and access to information via the internet. He has won many awards, including the 2013 Index on Censorship Digital Freedom Award for using technology to promote an open and free internet. His arrest and on-going detention are apparently a direct result of his peaceful and legitimate work, the groups said.

Demands for his release have been published by this group since his arrest and have been echoed by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in April 2015.

The authorities in Syria should:

Immediately disclose the whereabouts of Bassel Khartabil and grant him access to a lawyer and to his family;
Ensure that he is protected from torture and other ill-treatment;
Immediately and unconditionally release him;
Release all detainees in Syria held for exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression and association.

List of signatories:

Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Human Rights Watch (HRW)
Index on Censorship
PEN International
Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT)
Amnesty International (AI)
Arab Foundation for Development and Citizenship (AFDC)
Centre for Democracy and Civil Rights in Syria
EuroMed Rights (EMHRN)
Fraternity Foundation for Human Rights
Front Line Defenders (FLD)
HIVOS Humanist Institute for Co-operation with Developing Countries
Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR)
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) under the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Iraqi Association for the Defence of Journalists' Rights (IJRDA)
Metro Centre to Defend Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan
PAX for Peace
Rethink Rebuild Society
Sisters Arab Forum for Human Rights (SAF)
Syrian American Council (SAC)
Syrian Association for Citizenship
Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)
Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR)
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
Syrian Women Association
The Day After Association (TDA)
Violations Documentation Center in Syria (VDC)
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) under the Observatory for the
Protection of Human Rights Defenders

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