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In Syria, a detained Internet activist remains in limbo

Two years ago this week, authorities arrested a computer programmer, Bassel Khartabil, involved in protests against the Syrian government. There's still no word on when he'll be released.

Bassel Khartabil Joi Ito

The Arab Spring has all but disappeared from daily news headlines, but the uncertainty lingers concerning the fate of a missing computer engineer who was detained by the Syrian government two years ago.

On March 15, 2012, Syrian authorities detained Bassel Khartabil, a free-software activist who had used cell phone videos to document the first massive protests breaking out against the Assad regime, and who shared the videos with international news outlets. He has not been released.

Now as the anniversary of his disappearance nears, Fosfor, a digital publisher, has released "Bassel: Behind the Screens of the Syrian Revolution," a long-form narrative about Khartabil's work and detention. And, Creative Commons, the open-source licensing nonprofit Khartabil was a member of, is organizing an event as part of #FreeBassel Day, held Saturday at the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco to mark the anniversary of his capture.

Since the protests began, an estimated 140,000 people have died in the fighting in Syria.

Khartabil's story is compelling. A Syrian citizen, he studied computer programming in Europe before returning to Syria to help his ailing father. Arrested just weeks before his wedding day, Khartabil was a well-liked figure among the local tech community.

The recent Fosfor piece from Dutch author Monique Doppert chronicles Khartabil's role in establishing an "underground network of corresponders for the BBC so the world could witness the Syrian Revolution." We've contacted the BBC to confirm Khartabil's role, and we'll update when we hear back.

In an excerpt published Monday, Doppert, who followed Khartabil for three years, describes him as a successful and cultured computer programmer who partied with his friends in a hacker space he started. In the backdrop of these events is the tension between the government and citizens, including Khartabil. There is also a clear contrast between his tech-savvy lifestyle and the government's rudimentary understanding of technology. The entire piece can be purchased from Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play.

Fosfor promises the full piece will show how life "changes dramatically" when a BBC reporter asks Khartabil to capture videos of the Syrian uprising and "smuggle them out of the country," according to the piece's description on Amazon.

"He directs an army of volunteers armed only with their cell phones who record the Syrian revolution and spread the news via social media," the description says. Later in the piece, Doppert describes Aikilabs, the hacker space that Khartabil created and that some people started avoiding because it was seen as a "nerve center of opposition." Aikilabs eventually closed down and Khartabil was forced to move from place to place in order to stay ahead of the government.

The piece also provides context around Khartabil's capture by including a great amount of detail about the Syrian protests and the technical difficulties around smuggling video outside of Syria. The narrative is littered with Facebook and Twitter posts from Khartabil's account.

In Doppert's acknowledgements at the end of the piece, she indicates that Khartabil has actually seen a copy of the narrative. The story's text was smuggled into the prison where he was held in October.

"Bassel read and destroyed it, then had his comments smuggled out," she wrote.

There's no guarantee that increased awareness around Khartabil's story might spur his release, and his situation is likely to remain dicey. But his supporters have continued to campaign through various initiatives, including a music project and a cookbook created in his honor.