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Free-software activists hope for detained engineer's freedom

Bassel Khartabil, a volunteer with copyright licensing nonprofit Creative Commons, was reportedly detained by the Syrian government on March 15.

Bassel Khartabil
Joi Ito

Computer engineer Bassel Khartabil has dedicated himself to making software free and open for years, and now his friends are asking for his freedom from the Syrian government's detention.

Khartabil was reportedly taken in an ambush on March 15 -- the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising -- during massive arrests. And while it's unclear why Khartabil was detained, activists say the government is known to take people randomly and without reason. It is a scary time, particularly for those who are willing to gather and share information, according to activists.

The 16-month old Syrian crisis has claimed many lives with activists estimating more than 17,000 people killed.

Khartabil's friends and family are hopeful they can raise awareness through a blog launched to campaign for his freedom.

"Since his arrest, Bassel's valuable volunteer work, both in Syria and around the world, has been stopped," Khartabil's supporters wrote in the blog launched last week. "His absence has been painful for the communities that depend on him. In addition, his family, and his fiancee whom he was due to marry this past April, have had their lives put on hold."

Khartabil's family and friends don't know how the detention happened and only discovered the government had taken him after other detained people reported seeing Khartabil before they were released. Khartabil's supporters are still working on a timeline of what happened and a map of where they think he is held. They've heard from other activists that it's a place called branch 291 in the Damascus area, where the government allegedly tortured detainees.

Jon Phillips -- the founder of Fabricatorz, an open-source software and hardware company Khartabil is connected to -- said Khartabil's supporters have started the campaign to bring attention to the situation. They hope they can get him out.

"The state of Syria is very complicated," Phillips told CNET. "Our goal is to free our friend."

The campaign includes a petition that has been signed by hundreds of supporters, from dozens of countries, including Harvard professor and political activist for the free-software movement Lawrence Lessig, who posted about Bassel's campaign on his blog on July 4:

For most in the free software and free culture movements, the worst that ever happens is the sneer from a copyright lawyer. But in the middle east, the fight for freedom is generic: To stand for the right to create and share freely is to risk the most extreme response. Bassel is now suffering that most extreme response.

There are a thousand ways you can help the people of Syria. Here is one more: On this day of independence, stand with this one free soul.

Lessig's post brings up a seemingly real fear among those associated with the movement in countries that pay little attention to human rights, including the idea of sharing information freely.

Phillips said he can't speculate on why Khartabil was taken since no one actually knows.

"In Syria, people have been arrested simply for carrying an iPhone, or with a computer out in public," he wrote.

But what he does know is that the community has lost a valuable member.

Phillips worked with Khartabil on several projects, including Creative Commons and the Aiki Framework software technology for the Open Clip Art Library.

As with his other Internet activism work, Khartabil worked on the projects for free. He is known in the technical communities as a dedicated volunteer and a loyal friend, according to his supporters.

Born and raised in Syria, Khartabil remained in the country to be near his loved ones, despite having opportunities to leave, his friends said. There he created a hackerspace/cultural center called Aiki Lab that the Syrian government dismantled last year, Phillips wrote. Officials took all the equipment, TVs, computers and more, and shut the space.

The violence in Syria has been highlighted a lot over the last year, and while the videos and photos leaking out of the country give those of us in other countries some idea of what is happening, we probably don't think enough about the people who send the information.

While it's unclear why Bassel was detained, his story is a reminder of how fearful some countries are of collaboration and open communication.