BEIRUT — Most of the activists who embraced the calls for freedom that resonated across Syria in 2011 were imprisoned, killed or forced into exile before anyone even knew their names.
One whose reputation had become known beyond Syria’s borders was Bassel Khartabil Safadi, an Internet pioneer who embodied the hopes of a new generation that technology could be leveraged to build a fairer world. He was a successful Internet entrepreneur in the years before the 2011 uprising and then became an enthusiastic participant in Syria’s protest movement — until he was detained by government security forces in March 2012.
This week, his family heard confirmation from an undisclosed source in Damascus of the news they long had dreaded: Safadi was executed by the government in October 2015, just days after prison guards came and took him away from his cell, never to be heard from again.
“Words are difficult to come by,” wrote his wife, Noura, in a Facebook post Monday that announced the news of his death to family and friends. “This is the end that suits a hero like him.”
Safadi’s fate is one that has been shared by untold thousands of Syrians who took part in the protests only to vanish into the black hole of Syria’s prison system. Many simply disappear without a trace, their families left frantically scrambling to find out where they are.
According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, more than 100,000 people have been detained since the uprising began, and the whereabouts of many remain unknown. Amnesty International has reported thousands of secret executions of political prisoners at the prison of Sednaya outside Damascus. Safadi was held at a different but equally notorious facility, Adra, where executions also have been held.
A brief trial by a military court preceded Safadi’s execution, but such courts “are notorious for conducting closed-door proceedings that do not meet the minimum international standards for a fair trial,” Amnesty said in a statement issued Tuesday.
His death “is a grim reminder of the horrors that take place in Syrian prisons every day. The tens of thousands of people currently locked away inside Syrian government detention facilities face torture, ill treatment and extrajudicial executions,” said Anna Neistat, Amnesty’s senior director of research.
It is also a reminder of the cruel trajectory of the Syrian revolt, which began peacefully with widespread anti-government demonstrations but rapidly mutated into raging war.
Safadi, a Syria-born Palestinian who was 34 at the time of his death, remained a staunch proponent of peaceful change. But in conversations with The Washington Post over Skype throughout the first year of the protests, his mood shifted, from confidence that change was coming to fear that he was being targeted for his activism. He went underground, moved frequently and became afraid to talk after learning that security forces were hunting for him.
His connections with the international Internet community prompted widespread appeals for his release after he was detained, without result. The Index on Censorship awarded him its annual prize for digital freedom. Foreign Policy named him one of the top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012 “for insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution.”
Friends who mourned him Tuesday said they were struck by the contrast in outcomes between those who are detained by the government for advocating peaceful change and the militant Islamists, thousands of whom have been freed since the uprising began, who often go on to head armed groups.
“Bassel was a threat to the regime because he spoke a language they don’t understand,” said Mohammed Najem, a friend of Safadi’s who met him in 2009. “The regime prefers to deal with Islamists because they speak the same language, of sectarianism and violence.”
As word of his death spread, tributes came from those who had known and worked with him. “Bassel Khartabil lived and died for his belief in transparency and a free Internet,” said the Index on Censorship, which awarded him its 2013 Digital Freedom Award.
“His death is a terrible reminder of what many individuals and families risk in order to make a better society,” said Creative Commons.