The mystery of Amina Arraf

Questions have been raised about the identity of the Syrian blogger since news broke of her abductio

At first, it seemed like a straightforward -- if disheartening -- case of yet another internet activist paying the price for speaking out against the regime under who's watch they have the misfortune to live. On Monday evening Amina Arraf, a young gay woman living and blogging in Damascus, was reportedly kidnapped by armed men -- assumed to be members of Syria's notorious secret services -- and taken to an unknown location.

"We do not know who has taken her, so we do not know who to ask for her back," wrote her cousin, Rania Ismail on the homepage of Amina's blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus.

Major news organisations and social media sites around the world quickly picked up on this harrowing tale of a young woman punished for her outspoken beliefs and commitment to her sexual identity -- the "Free Amina" Facebook page amassed over 15,000 followers in the days since her disappearance.

But the story has quickly unravelled.

Doubts about Amina's identity surfaced after it emerged that the photographs purportedly of her were in fact taken from the Facebook page of Jelena Lecic, a Croatian woman living in London who has no connection to any lesbian woman in Damascus. Journalists and investigators have been unable to find any traces of a Damascene woman whose personal life corresponds to that of Amina, and the US embassy in Damascus also has no record of her existence, which is highly suspicious considering her claims to have dual American citizenship .

So, who is Amina Arraf? It is perfectly possible that "Amina" is merely the pen name of a Syrian activist who has been careful in concealing their identity from the authorities -- although perhaps not careful enough. Equally, there is a possibility that the blogger is entirely a work of cynical online fiction (cases of which have been reported before, as in the instance of Plain Layne, a young bisexual female blogger who transpired to exist purely in the imagination of Odin Soli, a middle-aged man who had previously blogged as Acanit, a young Muslim lesbian with a Jewish girlfriend).

Amina's story raises myriad questions about the elusiveness of online identity and the problematic nature of trying to verify information purely through the internet. But however mysterious or suspicious this particular case may be, it should not make us forget the plight of thousands of other bloggers and activists in the Middle East and across the world who have been forcibly detained for expressing their views.

And if the writer of A Gay Girl in Damascus does exist, and is currently being held by the Syrian security services, we can only hope that the media flurry surrounding this story will in some way aid his or her circustances by raising awareness of the situation in the country.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.