January 1, 2016 | By Danny O'Brien

Governments Taking Techies Offline: 2015 in Review

The real test of whether you have rights is not what the law says: it's what happens when you try to exercise them. For too many bloggers and technologist around the world, the price of using the Net in innovative, legitimate ways, has been jail. Some of the cases of imprisonment around the world that we've tracked the most closely were freed in 2015, but others continue to languish in need of our support.

Zone 9 bloggers freed in Ethiopia

There's been one undeniably happy ending for this year even if it is for a tale that should never have had to have beeen told.

In April 2014, six Ethiopians were arrested based on their online criticism of Ethiopia's current situation on their shared blog, Zone 9. The government's accusations of "terrorism" revolved around a familiar story: their research into digital security and secure encryption software allegedly indicated malicious intent. Technical knowledge was transformed by their accusers into a sign of imminent violence and subversion.

Eighteen months later, and a month after EFF highlighted their case as part of our Offline campaign against jailed technologists and bloggers, the last of the Zone 9 bloggers were acquitted and freed. Those bloggers should never have been arrested, but at least the story of their detention ends with some hint of justice.

Bassel Khartabil facing torture, execution in Syria

With Bassel Khartabil, a Syrian technologist seized off the streets of Damascus by the Assad government in 2011, this year ends with a turn for the worse. At the beginning of this year, Bassel was uncomfortable and unjustly but stably held in Syria's Adra prison. In October, we heard that he had been taken from his cell, removed into the shadowy world of Assad's Mahabharat, what Human Rights Watch calls Syria's "torture archipelago."

Last month, Bassel's wife heard that Bassel may have been sentenced to death by a secret court. No confirmation or denial has come from the Assad regime, leaving Bassel's family, friends and supporters deeply worried about his current status.

Bassel was detained because he was a prominent figure in Syria's tech community. His story, as ever, is tied far less to his own actions than to the ongoing politics of the Syrian civil war. Whatever their intentions, the Syrian authorities can serve justice and transparency by confirming Bassel's current condition and whereabouts through official channels. At a time when so many have their attention on Syria, they have the power to turn this sordid case of a man unfairly taken from his wife and family into a rare story of clemency in the region.

Canadian Saeed Malekpour imprisoned for life in Iran

Sometimes we need to tell stories just to add structure to an arbitrary and inexplicable world.

Saeed Malekpour is a Canadian-Iranian who has, by every account, played no role in the politics of modern Iran. He was happily employed in British Columbia as a web developer in 2008, when he traveled to Iran to visit his sick father. While there, he was seized by members of the Revolutionary Guard and accused of being an accomplice in developing Iranian pornography websites.

This flimsiest of evidence was enough to sentence Malekpour to death, and although that sentence was successfully challenged, he remains imprisoned for life. Saeed's story is terrifying: a family visit that turned into an incomprehensible punishment. Iran's Supreme Leader has the power to pardon him and set him free. As with Bassel, one simple statement by a powerful leader could end an ongoing tragedy.

We hope 2016 will be better for Bassel, Saeed, and our other ongoing Offline cases, Egypt's Alaa Abd El Fattah, and Ethiopia's Eskinder Nega. In many cases, that means hoping that key figures in their countries intercede on their behalf.

Governments telling wild stories

But if we want to end the need to draw attention to horrific tales of technologists imprisoned and sentenced to death, every government, including those in the US and Europe, should stop weaving their own horror stories.

Governments all around the world have spent the end of 2015 telling the public and each other wild stories about the supposed dangers of encryption tools. These exaggerated fictions feed decisions to punish innocent technologists around the world. We who remain online can stand in solidarity with--and learn a great deal from--those whose voices have been taken Offline.

This article is part of our Year In Review series; read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2015. Like what you're reading? EFF is a member-supported nonprofit, powered by donations from individuals around the world. Join us today and defend free speech, privacy, and innovation.


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