Two weeks ago, I wrote of exchanging letters with Bassel Khartabil, the creator of Syria's first hackerspace, a Creative Commons contributor and Wikipedian. Bassel has been detained for three and a half years by the Syrian authorities.
Bassel sent his letters from Adra prison, a civilian jail in the northeast outskirts of Damascus. Even representatives of the Assad government admit that conditions in Adra are overcrowded and inhumane. The prison was designed for 2,500 and now houses 9-11,000 prisoners. Single rooms hold fifty to a hundred cellmates. Food rations are minimal and prisoners must often pay bribes for sleeping materials. Nearby, according to reports, anti-regime forces attempted to seize the compound.
But as bad as Adra is, the network of military prisons and detention facilities controlled by Syria's military and internal security agencies have a much worse reputation. When Bassel was first seized, he disappeared for seven months into these interrogation centers. There he was denied access to lawyers or contact with anyone in the outside world. Detainees released before Bassel reported that he was physically abused during this time. Human Rights Watch describes the network of secret prisons as a "torture archipelago."
Now, his supporters fear Bassel may be re-entering that secret and unaccountable world. On Saturday, without warning, a patrol ordered Bassel to pack up his belongings, and moved him out of Adra. No one has heard from him since. His wife, Noura Ghazi, writes:
I've received calls from more then one prisoner asking if I have any news. They told me that no one inside [Adra] could get any information. The only thing they know: A military police patrol took Bassel with a "top secret" sealed order from the Military Field Court, and that Bassel left his cell with one of his cellmates.
Bassel was last brought before the Military Field Courts on December 9, 2012. A relative told Human Rights Watch that "Syrian officials did not inform Bassel of the charges against him, allow his attorney to attend his December court proceeding or show him the evidence against Bassel, and did not allow Bassel to present a defense." Amnesty International say that in the military courts "defendants have no right to legal representation or to bring witnesses. The proceedings are conducted in secret and the dates of the sessions are not divulged. Verdicts handed down by the court are not subject to appeal."
Noura was also told by Adra inmates that Bassel took off his wedding ring, and gave it to one of his friends: "I know," she writes, "my husband would hold strongly to that ring."
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention considered Bassel’s case in April during its 72nd session in Geneva, where they declared his detention and prosecution to be arbitrary and called for his immediate release. Secret and incommunicado detention is a violation of international human rights law.
The disappearance of Bassel from Adra is extremely troubling, and his supporters and human rights groups around the world are working to find out where he is, and how to help him. Syria's government may want Bassel off the map, but as long as people advocate for his safety and keep his case visible, he still has a chance of reaching freedom.
Correction: An earlier version of this blog post stated that Bassel had been charged at his Military Field Court appearance. It is unclear whether this is the case. We have replaced that text with a reported account of the event from Human Rights Watch.