Existence of Syrian-American blogger questioned

June 8, 2011 - 7:27 PM

BEIRUT (AP) — The existence of a blogger who claimed to be a Syrian-American lesbian came into question on Wednesday after a woman in Britain said photographs circulating on the Internet were of her, not the blogger supposedly in Damascus.

A representative for Jelena Lecic said the London woman first learned her likeness was being used on the Facebook account of a blogger known as Amina Arraf when her photo was linked to article about Arraf in the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday.

The article reported that the blogger, known for frank posts about her sexuality and open criticism of President Bashar Assad's autocratic rule, was detained after weeks on the run in the Syrian capital.

The Associated Press and The New York Times also reported the story, citing reports by an activist and a blog post purportedly written by Arraf's cousin, Rania Ismail. According to Ismail, Arraf was last seen Monday being bundled into a car by three men in civilian clothes as she was on her way to meet someone at the activist Local Coordination Committees. Ismail said a friend accompanying her was nearby and saw what happened.

The activist with the Local Coordination Committees, a group which helps documents the protests calling for an end to the Assad regime, had confirmed to the AP Tuesday that Arraf was taken. The activist spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from the regime.

On Wednesday, the same activist said the group had "no independent confirmation" and had reported it based on the cousin's blog entry, and from two people who claimed to be friends but who also got the information from the blog.

"As far as we know, nobody's emerged who has actually met her," the activist said.

Efforts to contact Rania Ismail, the purported cousin, were unsuccessful.

A reporter for The Associated Press, who maintained a monthlong email correspondence with someone claiming to be Arraf, found the writer seemed very much like a woman in the midst of the violent change gripping Syria. The writer spoke about friends in Damascus, and outlined worries about her father and hopes for the future of her country.

In the emails, the person acknowledged fudging some details of escaping from Syrian security officials to protect herself and her family, and painted a harrowing picture of fleeing her home.

"We were going from one place to another so my dad and I went as husband and much younger wife; me covered, veiled...we hit a government block and he claimed...as though he were a Syrian expat...that our papers were in our hotel and started arguing with one guy," she wrote in an email dated May 23.

In the blog, Arraf says she was born in Virginia. AP reporters tried to track down family and friends there. They found no public records with her name or her parents' names, or evidence they were there.

Friends contacted Lecic after seeing the photo in the Guardian, according to her representative.

"At first she didn't believe it, or that it was a mistake," said the representative, Kim Grahame of Just News International, a public relations firm. "She realized when she looked herself that it was one of her photos."

Lecic asked the Guardian to remove the photo, said Julius Just, the organization's chairman. He said Lecic was "extremely concerned" that some extremist might attack her on the assumption that she was a high-profile lesbian.

He said the newspaper pulled the photograph, only to replace it with another one — also of Lecic.

Editors at the Guardian declined comment, referring to a correction on the website saying the images had been removed "pending investigation into the origins of the photographs and other matters relating to the blog."

Just, who described Lecic as an administrator, said his client believed her identity was stolen about a year ago, when her Facebook photographs appeared on another person's profile. He said neither he nor Lecic knew Arraf's identity.

"Does this Amina Arraf exist? Is she a composite? Who knows what this story is?" he said.

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Associated Press writers Raphael G. Satter in London and Diaa Haddid in Tripoli, Libya contributed to this report.