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MIT Media Lab mourns after reported execution of Syrian activist

MIT List Visual Arts Center and Media Lab Building.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff, file

MIT List Visual Arts Center and Media Lab Building.

The MIT Media Lab community is mourning Bassel Khartabil, a noted open source software developer and Internet activist who was reportedly executed in Syria.

When news that Khartabil was executed in October 2015 came to light this week, it prompted an outpouring of sympathy from activists and academics all over the world. It also hit especially hard at MIT, where Khartabil had been offered a research scientist position in the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media.

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Joichi “Joi” Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, wrote in a post on the Media Lab website that he was devastated to learn the fate of his friend and former colleague.

“All of us at the Media Lab send our heartfelt condolences to his family, and join the community mourning this great loss,” Ito wrote. “I appreciated his values, his humor, and his devotion to his country. Bassel was, above all, someone who loved Syria and worked to bring one of the oldest cities in the world into the 21st Century.”

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Ito wrote that he first met Khartabil in 2009, three years before he became a political prisoner. After he was jailed in 2012, “Bassel’s family and peers were hopeful of his eventual release,” Ito wrote. “The #FreeBassel campaign and humanitarian groups such as Amnesty International worked tirelessly to raise awareness about his unjust detention.”

When a rumor emerged that he’d been sentenced to death in October 2015, Ito and Ethan Zuckerman publicly offered him the job at MIT, according to the post. They were hoping the offer might prompt his release and raise awareness of his plight.

Khartabil wanted to create open source library of Syrian history, which would have included a digital 3-D reconstruction of ancient Palmyra, according to the MIT Media Lab website.

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But sadly, he never got the chance to do that work at MIT.

“When Bassel was incarcerated, we took it on as a Media Lab issue,” said Zuckerman, who directs the Center for Civic Media and teaches at the Media Lab. “We know now, in retrospect, that our efforts were in vain.”

On Tuesday, Khartabil’s widow, Noura Ghazi Safadi wrote on Facebook that she had confirmed her husband’s death.

“Words are difficult to come by while I am about to announce, on behalf of Bassel’s family and mine, the confirmation of the death sentence and execution of my husband Bassel Khartabil Safadi,” she wrote. “He was executed just days after he was taken from Adra prison in October 2015. This is the end that suits a hero like him.”

The news brought sadness — and a sense of closure — to many.

For years, Khartabil’s family, friends and colleagues wondered what had happened to him. “Basically there was no information about him,” said Zuckerman.

“Bassel is one of hundreds, thousands of people who had enormous hopes for their country, and had those hopes dashed,” said Zuckerman, who described the loss of Khartabil as a “a heartbreaking thing.”

“It’s heavy hearts all over,” said Zuckerman.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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