bassel safadi

Read the story of Bassel Khartabil, Syrian prisoner who lives and risks dying for a free Internet

Timothy Vollmer, October 19th, 2015

The original article was written by Stéphanie Vidal in It has since been published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Please attribute author Stéphanie Vidal and as the place of first publication by linking to the original article. The following has been translated into English by Philippe Aigrain, Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay, and Jean-Christophe Peyssard. The translated source text is available here.

Bassel Khartabil by Christopher Adams, CC BY 2.0.

Known worldwide as a free Internet defender and an Open Source culture promoter, he has been detained for three years and a half by the Bashar al-Assad regime and has been transferred from Adra prison to an unknown place on 3 October 2015. On October 10th, his wife has been informed that his name has been deleted from the prison register, without further information on where he could be. None of the parties involved recognizes they have him or not.

Bassel Khartabil, 34, a fervent defender of a free Internet and promoter of open source culture, has been held prisoner since 15 March 2012 in the jails of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. According to the opinion of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention during its 72nd session held in Geneva in April 2015, he had been arbitrarily detained for “peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression” and having “advocated a non-restricted use of the Internet.” Khartabil was transferred on 3 October 2015 from Adra prison, located in the north-eastern outskirts of Damascus, where he has been imprisoned since December 2012. He was taken to an unknown location, possibly for trial. Accused without evidence having ever been presented against him, he is more than ever in danger.

A developer recognized worldwide for his contributions to open source projects such as Mozilla Firefox, Wikipedia and Creative Commons, Bassel Khartabil was also involved in local action, based in Damascus at Aiki Lab, a place dedicated to digital art practices and teaching of collaborative technologies. For all of his work, he was awarded by the Foreign Policy website the 19th position on its prestigious Global Thinkers ranking of 2012, and in 2013 won the Digital Freedom Award from the Index on Censorship, an international organization that promotes and defends freedom of expression since 1972.

His imprisonment and his recent transfer deeply affect and concern the Open Source community and activists for human rights and the fundamental freedom of free communication of thoughts and opinions. At the announcement of the news, Jillian C. York, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization defending civil liberties in the digital world, posted on her Twitter account the following message:

In less than 140 characters, Jillian C. York managed to raise two realities: the frightening silence of the Syrian government in response to the actions taken for the release of Bassel Khartabil, and the protection power that lies in the watchfulness of the Internet users for political prisoners fate. On the first point, Ines Osman, Coordinator of the Legal Service of the Alkarama Foundation NGO, linking the victims of violations of human rights in the Arab world and UN mechanisms, confirms the impassivity of the Syrian authorities:

We have taken action at the UN twice, in 2012 and 2014, and the Syrian authorities have never responded to UN requests. This past April, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for the release of Bassel, and this appeal once again remained ignored. It is essential that the international community is calling for the implementation of these decisions, which clearly state that his most basic rights were not respected: he was arrested, held incommunicado, tortured, and brought before a military judge with false accusations.

On Saturday morning, we were informed that Bassel had been transferred from the Adra jail towards an unknown destination. Nobody knows his present whereabouts. We immediately informed the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances. We hope that this time, the Syrian authorities will answer.

When there is no longer respect for human rights, public calls can only state what one hopes for. This brings us to the second point: the more the affirmation of our hope is shared and present on the Web and social media, the more it may turn to a reality. Bassel’s engagement in favor of a free Internet may have brought him to jail, but the attention that we, citizens on the Internet, give to this case may, to some degree, help bring him out of the darkness. To demonstrate interest for his life is one of the ways by which people can become aware that in Syria, one can die because one uses a smartphone and understands how the Internet works.

Survival in Adra, even under the bombings

To tell Bassel’s story over these last five years is also to try to portray implicitly a devastated Syria, from the beginning of the Syrian revolution 15–18 March, 2011 (first calls to uprising, further to the Egyptian revolution; first “Friday demonstrations” and their brutal repression) to the slow transformation of this revolution into an inextricable armed conflict where 240,000 people have died and millions have been displaced.

Bassel by Joi Ito, CC BY 2.0.

Bassel Khartabil, who was forced by restraint to remain in Syria, is yet another of these prisoners whose total number is hard to confirm: one speaks of 8,000 prisoners, of which 600 are women, in Adra prison alone, three times its nominal capacity. Prisoners have been jailed in Adra for a wide variety of allegations such as drug dealing or drug use, murder or robbery, but it also detains prisoners whose name is known abroad for the engagement in favour of freedom of expression. Mazen Darwish, for instance, is one of them. He is the President of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, arrested in February 2012, almost a month to the day before Bassel Khartabil. He was freed temporarily on 10 August 2015 before being found not guilty of the charges of “publishing information on terrorist acts” on the 31st of the same month.

Detained under other charges, Bassel Khartabil was accused in front of military courts, and thus excluded from the general political amnesty of June 2014, which, though opaque, cleared many peaceful activists of the charges brought against them. Khartabil was thus still in Adra when the jail was stormed by the armed rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, who took control of two of its buildings on September 12th, a date that may be symbolic as it is the day after Bashar al-Assad’s fiftieth birthday. The prisoners found themselves caught between bombings by the regular army and fire by the rebels trying to free the jail. Bassel Khartabil survived this deluge of fire, but it seems that around twenty other prisoners were killed and several dozens, possibly up to one  hundred, were injured.

Again, when it comes to Syria, information sources are difficult to obtain. Numbers are approximate, speech is choked in fear, and communication is slowed because of regime surveillance. As stressed by the lawyer Benoît Huet in an op-ed published in the French newspaper Libération, the war in Syria has also become, in a connected world, an information war, raising the question of its dissemination and manipulation. Internationally, this information war prevents us from clearly seeing the facts in a media-pervasive but terribly distant conflict because of its extreme complexity. This should not make us overlook the other information war, which raged this time at local level: in the heart of Syria, personal information and content posted on social networks are used as weapons.

Syrian smartphones, fear in the pocket

The internet, and particularly social media such as Facebook, have been privileged communication venues used by the Syrian population to testify about the revolution of 2011 and the regime’s bloody repression. The documentary Syria: Inside the Secret Revolution, initially broadcast by the BBC on 26 September 2011, gathers some of these videos which, after their publication online, allowed the international community to realize the revolt on Syrian streets.

It should nevertheless not be forgotten that the Internet has not always been authorized in Syria, nor Facebook accessible to its population. As he took office after the death of his father Hafez in June 2000, Bashar al-Assad appeared like a reformer, demonstrating an open spirit in several economic and political domains. He even made access to the Internet possible but, understanding the power of the network, took care to have most social networks censored by 2007, followed by Wikipedia in Arabic in 2008.

From the start, the network was monitored: those who would go to cybercafés had to show proof of identification and their web history was kept, as explains Wahid Saqr, former officer of security of the Syrian government, to Mishal Husain in the second episode of How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring, as well as another documentary broadcast by the BBC on 15 September 2011.

It was only in February 2011 that Bashar al-Assad permitted access to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The gesture, intended to be magnanimous, was quickly interpreted as threatening, because social network were also appearing to be a useful tool for the government to surveil its population and gather information on those who could, through words and images, be opponents. Employed as digital surveillance weapons, these social networks have been used to track those whose voice could rise, virtually or for real, against the Damascus regime, but also all those who had computer means or competences.

Dana Trometer, researcher and producer of the documentaries quoted above, could feel this dreadful reality:

People who I met for all movies on which I worked on the Arab world, and especially of Syria, have very often been forced to escape or have unfortunately disappeared shortly after our interviews.

Even today, on the road of exile, refugees explain that it is particularly dangerous to carry a mobile phone. This simple possession can lead to arrest — or much worse — by Syrian government representatives or ISIS members who ask them, at their respective checkpoints, to give their Facebook username and password to determine their political allegiance.

Bassel Khartabil said that in Syria, holding a mobile phone was much more dangerous than walking around with a nuclear bomb. Because of his job as a developer and his commitments to the promotion of a free Internet, it was impossible for him to get rid of his computers and connected mobile phones, nor to forget his knowledge of information technologies. On 31 January 2012, two weeks before being arrested, he posted the following tweet:

Wanting to build: the AikiLab and Palmyra Project

His role of Creative Commons lead in Syria and his participation, at the international level, in the free culture movement, led him to frequent travels abroad, but he would always go back home. It was in Poland, at the September 2011 Creative Commons Summit, that his friend Jon Phillips, who has since become the leader of the #FreeBassel campaign, saw him for the last time:

I begged him to not go back, that he would be killed or made a prisoner. He tried to reassure me by telling that maybe he would not be risking that, and that anyway, his friends, his family, his love was there, that he could not stay away. We cried and it was really ugly, then we spent the rest of the night laughing and designing a new world. When the sun rose, he took his cab, waved a last time through the open window, and I remember thinking that it was the last time I would see him; that he would be arrested as soon as he got out of the plane.

It didn’t exactly happen like that: Bassel Khartabil got a few more months of respite, during which he continued his local engagement. Syria was under an embargo, and only certain proprietary software was permitted to be taught in universities. In 2010, Bassel Khartabil thus founded the AikiLab, described, depending on the person, as a hackerspace or a cultural center, in order to allow education in social media and open source technologies.

Developers, artists, professors, journalists and local entrepreneurs would frequently visit the AikiLab space, described by artist Dino Ahmad Ali as a large apartment with two rooms where anyone could come to work and even sleep if the task was long, and drink a coffee or a beer in the kitchen to give oneself courage, or to relax. The large living room was fit for conferences, and Internet celebrities visited to share their knowledge, such as Mozilla founder Mitchell Baker MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito.

Dino Ahmad Ali and Bassel Khartabil were also colleagues. They were both working for a publishing house called Al-Aous, on, a website providing cultural information on Syria — Dino was artistic director and Bassel the technical director. Bassel Khartabil dedicated years of his life to a project which was particularly close to his heart, the Palmyra Project. On a CD-ROM, this project was an ambitious virtual tour of the ancient city, fully reconstructed in 3D images from documents of scientific and archaeological research. “Initially, Bassel was only dealing with programming, but as a person with multiple talents, he learned to use the Maya software and began to produce 3D models,” remembers Georges Dahdouh, who joined the team several months as head of 3D modeling. “He also learned the functioning of a game engine to conceive the path of the virtual tour in 3D and at the end, together with other team members, he would work on every other aspect except for copyright and research, for which a team was dedicated to the study of historical sources and interviews with archaeologists.”

Oriented for a general audience, Project Palmyra was expected to constitute a sort of digital encyclopedia on this city, also called Tadmor, bringing its return through the gathering of images and texts and discovering new technologies involving specialists and archaeologists. Khaled Al-Assad was the director of antiques of Palmyra between 1963 and 2003 and a friend of Bassel Khartabil. This scholar was beheaded on 18 August 2015 by ISIS, before his body was exposed on the streets by his executioners and photos broadcast on social media.

Since the CD-ROM has not been published, the members of the #FreeBassel campaign decided to revive Palmyra Project by launching on 15 October 2015 #NewPalmyra, an online community and a platform of data storage, in order to honor the work of Bassel. The project is directed by Barry Threw, a digital artist and director of software for Obscura, who also contributed to #racingextinction, a video projection on the Empire State Building. Behind both hashtags is a similar desire to use architecture to raise public awareness by displaying endangered species on one of the most famous skyscrapers in NYC, raising awareness on climate change, or by putting digital technology at the service of a threatened Syria. “The Ancient City of Palmyra was a vital gateway for commerce and cultures,” said Threw. “With #NewPalmyra, we oppose the foolish destruction of archaeological treasures led by ISIS by the will of construction of a man like Bassel Khartabil. We hope this project will raise awareness on his work and contribute to his liberation.”

A civilian pursued by a military tribunal

On 15 March 2012, while leaving his place of work in the district of al-Mazzeh in Damascus, Bassel was arrested by men of Branch 215, one of the military intelligence services in Damascus. After having been interrogated and tortured for five days, he was accompanied to his house so that his computers and documents could be seized. He was then detained in secret for nine months. We know since then that he was first taken to Branch 248 of military intelligence and that he spent eight months in solitary confinement in the Adra prison. He was presented to a military court on 9 December 2012.

“The military court, specialised in trials of military criminals in times of war, reports to the Defense minister and not to the Justice minister. It is composed of three soldiers, including one president. Its procedures are kept secret, and the accused do not have the right to a lawyer’s assistance,” explains Noura Ghazi, attorney and human rights activist, who was engaged to Bassel Khartabil a short time before he was arrested. “Sentences are particularly severe and result in death. Penalties are executed immediately, preventing any re-examination of the sentences. Since 2011 events, when the military court was activated to persecute peaceful activists such as Bassel, Anas and Salah Shughri and many others. This is a clear violation of the law, the Constitution and even the founding decree of this court.”

A civilian without a lawyer on trial by a military court, Bassel Khartabil saw his trial last for no more than a few minutes, without any evidence presented against him, as underlined the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. After this expedited and unfair trial, he was immediately transferred to the prison of Sidnaya, known to be one of the most infamous of the regime.

Bassel was then sent again to Adra prison, where he could receive a visit from his family on 26 December 2012. They found him in an alarming physical and psychological state. He obtained the right to marry Noura Ghazi in prison on 7 January 2013. He has been detained in Adra until 3 October 2015. According to a message posted on that day on the Facebook page of the #FreeBassel campaign, he was “transferred from the Adra prison to an unknown location after a patrol, which origin is unknown, came to ask him to arrange his affairs. It is assumed that he has been transferred to the headquarters of the military police civil tribunal in the district of al-Qaboun. Once more, we do not know where Bassel is, and are very worried.”

Bassel Khartabil, developer, teacher and pacifist, who survived torture, solitary confinement, hunger and bombing, certainly lives under the knife of a terrible sentence. Do not forget, you certainly have a mobile phone in your pocket.

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Creative Commons Board of Directors approves resolution calling for Bassel Khartabil release

Timothy Vollmer, October 17th, 2015

At its meeting on October 16, 2015, the Creative Commons Board of Directors unanimously approved the following motion:

Consensus Resolution re: Bassel Safadi 

WHEREAS: Creative Commons is hosting its bi-annual Global Summit in Seoul, South Korea from Oct 15-17, 2015, an event that has previously been attended by Bassel Khartabil, where he was an active and valued contributor, and where he is today profoundly missed by his friends and colleagues.

WHEREAS: Mr. Khartabil has served faithfully and diligently as the Public Lead of CC Syria since 2009, and among other immeasurable contributions:

  • Built Aiki Lab Community Center in Damascus that has hosted talks from key figures in the open web movement in support of Creative Commons communities in the Arab region;

  • Volunteered on countless free culture projects including Creative Commons, Mozilla, Wikipedia, and Openclipart;

  • Participated in and was a leader of several Creative Commons Arab Regional Meetings, including work to forge a unified Arabic translation of important CC licensing and public domain concepts;

  • Was named in 2012 as a one of the Top Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy for insisting on a peaceful Syrian revolution; and

  • Was awarded by Index on Censorship the Digital Freedom Award in 2013.

WHEREAS: Mr. Khartabil’s contributions to Creative Commons have always inspired collaboration, community, and the sharing of culture and knowledge, including his leadership in the development of the #NewPalmyra, and his activism and involvement in the CC community and open internet community is deeply missed since his arrest and imprisonment without trial or assistance of counsel in March 2012.

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: that the Board of Directors hereby calls on Mr. Khartabil’s captors for his immediate and safe release.


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A plea from the Commons: #FreeBassel now

Timothy Vollmer, October 14th, 2015


As the Creative Commons Global Summit kicks off this week in Seoul, we are acutely aware of the absence of Bassel Khartabil, the Palestinian-Syrian open source software engineer and activist who led the CC Syria affiliate team. He has been imprisoned in Syria since March 2012.

It is an incredibly dangerous time for Bassel. Earlier this month we heard that Bassel had been transferred from Adra Prison to an unknown location. Bassel’s name has been removed from the register at Adra Prison, and his bed has been assigned to another prisoner. There is little to no other information about his status, health, or whereabouts.

In this uncertain time it’s now more important than ever for our community to raise awareness about Bassel’s situation and re-commit to calling for his safe release. Here’s some things we all can do:

Keep Bassel in the spotlight. #FreeBassel.



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Happy Birthday to friend and ally Bassel Khartabil

Timothy Vollmer, May 22nd, 2015

Bassel Safadi
Bassel Safadi / Christopher Adams / CC BY

Bassel Khartabil (also known as Bassel Safadi) is a computer engineer who, through his dedicated work in social media, digital education, and open-source web software, played a huge role in opening the Internet in Syria and bringing online access and knowledge to the Syrian people. Many people reading this blog know Bassel through his leadership for the Creative Commons Syria affiliate team. You’ll also know that Bassel has been imprisoned by the Syrian government at Adra Prison since 15 March 2012–over 1100 days without any charges being brought against him.

Today is Bassel’s 34th birthday, the fourth birthday he’s spent in detainment. Creative Commons and the open community honor Bassel and continue to advocate for his immediate release from prison in Damascus.

You can wish Bassel a Happy Birthday and share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #freebassel. For more information check out

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#FreeBassel Day 2015: Wikipedia Edit-a-thon at EFF

Timothy Vollmer, March 5th, 2015

Bassel / Joi Ito / CC BY

Bassel Khartabil (also known as Bassel Safadi) is a computer engineer who, through his innovations in social media, digital education, and open-source web software, played a huge role in opening the Internet in Syria and bringing online access and knowledge to the Syrian people. Many people reading this blog know Bassel through his work as lead for CC Syria.

Sunday, March 15, 2015 marks the third anniversary of Bassel’s arrest and imprisonment in Syria, as well as the fourth anniversary of the Syrian uprising.

In San Francisco, #FreeBassel supporters, artists, and members of the open community are gathering at the Electronic Frontier Foundation for a community-building event organized around a Wikipedia edit-a-thon in Bassel’s honor. We’ll be working to improve and add articles and media content related to Bassel and articles of interest to him. We’ll also be discussing his case and brainstorming about new projects and ideas to help bring awareness to his case. Here are the details:

March 15, 2015
2:00pm — 6:00pm
EFF HQ: 815 Eddy St., San Francisco

No prior Wikipedia editing experience is necessary, we’ll have experienced editors present to help you get set up and make your first edit. Artists and activists interested in freedom of expression are encouraged to come contribute to the discussion. Experienced Wikipedians also welcome to come learn more about Bassel, contribute to Wikipedia, and help others to become involved.

For more details on the #FreeBassel Day event, click here.

This entry is remixed from Wikipedia:Meetup/San Francisco/FreeBassel Day 2015, available under CC BY-SA.

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Show your support for imprisoned CC community leader Bassel Khartabil

Elliot Harmon, May 21st, 2014

Kalie Taylor / CC0 / Download all posters

If you follow this blog with any regularity, you’re likely already familiar with Bassel Khartabil, the Syrian CC community leader who has been in imprisoned since March 2012 without having had any charges brought against him. Thursday, May 22, is Bassel’s birthday, and the third birthday he’ll be spending in prison. This Saturday, he will have been in prison for 800 days.

Today, join CC and the open community in honoring our friend Bassel:

Read more

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Free Bassel Day

Elliot Harmon, March 15th, 2014

#FREEBASSEL / Kennisland / CC BY-SA

As of today, CC Syria community leader Bassel Khartabil has been in prison for two years. Today, we join the worldwide open community in honoring Bassel and insisting that he be freed.

Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders have produced this excellent video about why Bassel’s story is important to our community, featuring interviews with CC co-founder Lawrence Lessig and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York.

“Bassel could have gotten out, but he chose to stay. And that decision was very costly for him, and it was an important decision for us. It symbolized his commitment to making this democracy possible, and to continuing the work to spread that message. And we owe him for that, and we have an obligation to do as much as we can to keep the world aware of this incredible person.” – Lawrence Lessig

In honor of Free Bassel Day, our friend Niki Korth has compiled a cookbook in honor of Bassel, featuring recipes submitted by people who know Bassel or are involved with the #freebassel campaign. You can read the cookbook online or download a PDF (469 KB).

Niki is planning to release a Version 2 of the cookbook, so it’s not too late to submit a recipe.

We honor Bassel today and look forward to the day he is freed.


Join us in San Francisco for Free Bassel Day

Elliot Harmon, March 7th, 2014

Bassel Khartabil is a Syrian-Palestinian computer engineer who, through his innovations in social media, digital education, and open-source web software, played a huge role in opening the internet in Syria and bringing online access and knowledge to the Syrian people. Many people reading this blog know Bassel through his work as lead for CC Syria. He was arrested in March of 2012 in Damascus, and has been detained ever since.

The second #FreeBassel Day will be held globally on March 15, marking the second anniversary of his imprisonment and the third anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian uprising.

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, come join the SF open community on #FreeBassel Day SF at the Wikimedia Foundation offices in downtown San Francisco. In addition to sharing art, music, food, and stories about Bassel, we will be hosting a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon in honor of him. Bassel is a Wikipedian himself, so we’ll be working on writing and improving articles on topics that he cares about (and might be editing now if he weren’t in prison). Such topics include: Syria, computers, technology in the MENA region, open source web development, and peace (to name a few). Learn more about Bassel in his own words and the words of friends here and here.

No Wikipedia editing experience is necessary – just bring your laptop, and seasoned Wikipedians will be there to provide guidance in copy-editing, article creation, and sourcing. And friends and colleagues of Bassel will be there to tell you more about him and his work.

We’ll have an informal potluck, including food and beverages sourced from the #FreeBassel Cookbook V.1, a collection of recipes from friends and supporters of Bassel, collected by The Big Conversation Space and sponsored by Aerbook. Please bring something to share.

We’ll also be sharing art and media created by #FreeBassel supporters, including Disquiet Junto #FreeBassel and Letters for Bassel.


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Cookbook in honor of Bassel Khartabil

Elliot Harmon, February 24th, 2014

In honor of Bassel Khartabil and Free Bassel Day, artist Niki Korth is putting together a #freebassel cookbook. Bassel, a free software activist and leader of the Syrian Creative Commons community, has been in prison since 2012. In Niki’s words:

The #FreeBassel Cookbook is a collection of recipes from people who care about Bassel and would like to share a meal with him if he weren’t in prison.

Please contribute a recipe to this collection. Submit it before 10 March 2014 to get it included in the first edition of the cookbook. Pick a recipe that is special to you, a recipe that makes you think of Bassel, a recipe that reminds you that the virtual/digital world is only a tool for real world human encounters, and is in no way a substitute for experiences such as sharing a meal, or a recipe for a meal that you think Bassel would enjoy.

The #FreeBassel Cookbook V.1 will be released as a free, digital book on #FreeBassel Day 2014 (15 March)

If Bassel has not been freed by this date, please make a recipe from this collection on this day in his honor and share it with people who you care about. Share pictures of your meal with the #FreeBassel hashtag.

Repeat until Bassel is free.

Submit your recipe here. See our previous post to learn how to get involved with Free Bassel Day.

Previously: Disquiet Junto honors Bassel Khartabil

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Free Bassel Day, coming March 15

Elliot Harmon, January 22nd, 2014

Bassel Khartabil is a computer engineer who, through his innovations in social media, digital education, and open-source web software, played a huge role in opening the internet in Syria and bringing online access and knowledge to the Syrian people. Many people reading this blog know Bassel through his work as lead for CC Syria.

Coinciding with the 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting (at which Bassel was sorely missed) and the Geneva II Peace Conference, the #freebassel Campaign is announcing the call for pledges for Free Bassel Day 2014.

The second Free Bassel Day will be held globally on March 15, marking the second anniversary of his imprisonment and the third anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian civil war. We encourage you to join the CC and #freebassel communities and get involved.

For more information or to share your pledge for Free Bassel Day, contact the #freebassel campaign at

Projects already in the works:

For more information or to submit your Free Bassel Day event or project, visit



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