Middle East

Syrian mystery of Amina Arraf: 'A gay girl in Damascus'

News of the kidnap of Syrian blogger Amina Arraf - known as "a gay girl in Damascus" - has made headlines around the world, but doubts about her identity have prompted the question - does she really exist?

The blogger - a fierce critic of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad - has amassed thousands of readers and supporters.

When someone purporting to be her cousin posted a note on her blog on Monday saying that she had been abducted by suspected government agents in Damascus, Facebook groups sprung up calling for her release.

But the story quickly began to unravel.

Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari was not who she seemed to be.

The woman in the pictures was not her. The US embassy in Syria had no record of her - although she claimed to have dual citizenship. No-one could say that they had met her.

So who is Amina?

We know she is not the person in her pictures - that woman is Jelena Lecic, a resident of London who was shocked to see her pictures all over the internet.

"I realised [on Tuesday] when I saw my picture on a Guardian online story and… before I knew it, it was everywhere," Ms Lecic told the BBC's Newsnight programme.

Aside from the British broadsheet, her picture appeared in news reports in the US, Middle East and Australia.

"It's absolutely astonishing that someone has been using my picture and obviously campaigning with my face on it," she adds.

Ms Lecic says she has never been to Syria, never met Amina and has nothing to do with her blog.

She thinks the images are taken from her Facebook account - the main one, she says, was taken on her birthday in Paris last year.

So does Amina Arraf even exist?

In recent days, her blog posts - which recount "An out Syrian lesbian's thoughts on life, the universe and so on" - have made their way into several media reports.

They speak from the heart and highlight the painstaking struggle of Syrian opposition supporters in one of the Arab world's most brutal police states.

In one oft-cited blog entry, she tells how her father chased off two government men who came to arrest her in the middle of the night. She recounts how she had her clothes ready for just such an occasion, how her father talked the men into leaving, and how he will always be her hero as a result.

Compelling stuff - but is it true?

Mahmoud Hamad, a Syrian rights activist in London, is inclined to think so.

"Her level of writing, her sophistication, her intricate knowledge of Syrian society and what's happening - right now politically in Syria - compels you to believe that this person is actually a genuine political activist and homosexual," he told Newsnight.

But even he admits she could be a man, a group of individuals - anyone really.

Nobody Mr Hamad knows has ever met Amina Abdullah in person and all contact with the blogger has been via email, he says.

Hijacked identity

Even friends of the activist don't know what to think.

A Canadian woman, Sandra Bagaria, has been communicating online with Amina Arraf for six months, exchanging some 500 emails.

"Somebody is writing [to] me and I can assure you it's not me," she told US public radio NPR.

The blog was so autobiographical, so genuine, that it never occurred to Ms Bagaria that Amina could be anyone but Amina, she told NPR.

Ms Bagaria said that Amina posted about 200 pictures on her Facebook page. It turns out, all are of Jelena Lecic. Now, she has serious doubts.

"Of course I have doubts of: 'Is it true? What's not true?' But, again, I'm quite certain that there's really someone writing. Now the face she has, I don't know."

Rights activist Mahmoud Hamad says it's no surprise that Amina would want to hide her identity from the Syrian authorities.

The last thing she would want is to have her genuine photo circulated on the internet, he says.

But the real woman in the photos - Jelena Lecic - says she is very upset that her pictures have been "hijacked" and attached to Syrian dissident's story.

"I really sympathise with Amina, and if she's a real person, it's awful she has been kidnapped," she told the BBC.

"But for me, it has been very upsetting… I really don't feel comfortable with my face being dragged all over the place."