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Taken Offline: Years in Prison for a Love of Technology

DEEPLINKS BLOG
September 24, 2015

Taken Offline: Years in Prison for a Love of Technology

Writing a letter with a pen has an odd feeling in a digital age. You pick your words carefully, without a delete key. You urge your hands to recall their best handwriting. You ponder about forms of address and how much space to leave; should I fill the page, or sign off half-way down?

The last time I wrote a letter was to the Syrian technologist, Bassel Khartabil. I had to write a letter, because Bassel's not online right now, despite being an enthusiastic adopter of new technology when it reached his home town of Damascus. Bassel's not online, because he was arrested and thrown in jail for his love of the Internet and free culture, and has now been incarcerated for over three and a half years.

Bassel was seized by Syrian security in March 2012, during the earlier days of the Syrian civil war. With his contributions to Wikipedia and open source, with his enthusiastic support of Damascus' hackerspace, and leadership of Creative Commons Syria, Bassel was a prominent figure online. That, apparently, made him a threat to the Assad government. Now he sits in a Adra prison, offline, as the war he had no part in explodes around him. Earlier this month, opposition forces seized control of one part of the prison, placing him directly on the frontline of the conflict.

The trend of governments to treat technologists and technology users as unpredictable threats who need to be taken offline is on the rise. Every week sees new incidents of arrests and detentions on the basis of ignorance or suspicion of new technology and its users. From the experience of teenager Ahmed Mohamed in Irving, Texas, to the recent detention by Iranian police of tech entrepreneur Arash Zad, users end up harassed or detained in part because of their "dangerous" knowledge of tech.

Hence, Offline: our new contribution to sharing the stories of imprisoned technologists and technology users.

Stories like Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian web developer seized by plain clothes officers while visiting Tehran, tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment for writing code that was re-used without his knowledge on a pornography site. The Zone 9 Bloggers, currently facing charges of terrorism partly because of their attempts to learn and use encryption. Alaa Abd El Fattah, an activist and coder who organized Linux installfests in Egypt and used his knowledge of free software and the web to protest in the Arab Spring, before his persecution and imprisonment by the new Egyptian regime. Eskinder Nega, an old-school Ethiopian journalist whose defiant adoption of online publishing led to a final sentence of eighteen years in prison.

Our cases just scratch the surface of this growing problem. Organizations like Global Voices Advocacy, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, IFEX and the Media Legal Defence Initiative are collectively tracking hundreds of cases of bloggers, online writers, scientists and technologists who are unjustly detained around the world. Each of these groups work to raise awareness and provide legal, financial and logistical support to prisoners, and their friends and family.

Every effort to highlight these cases helps. Over the years, we've heard directly from prisoners like Bassel that international attention gets results. Prisoners whose cases attract publicity are less likely to be mistreated, and more likely to be released early. De-mystifying and explaining who these people really are can help dilute the suspicion or ignorance that technology users face everywhere. By defending these prisoners, you can help prevent others from being targeted in the same way.

Users of the Internet make friends across the world, and all of our cases have a network of supporters who now campaign for their release. You'll find ways to assist these campaigns on every page of Offline. Your support of their work — whether it's contacting your country's embassy to lobby for these individual's release, spreading their story, or just writing them a letter — may well transform a fellow users' life.

As Bassel wrote in his own letter to his supporters from prison, "I can not find words to describe my feelings about everything you did for me. What you did saved me and changed my situation [for the] better." Being offline should never mean being forgotten.

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