msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 6/7/2011 7:44:55 PM ET 2011-06-07T23:44:55

Online campaigns to free a Syrian-American lesbian blogger gained momentum Tuesday as thousands of people worldwide demanded her release.

The disappearance of Amina Arraf, a 36-year-old writer known for her frank posts about her sexuality and open criticism of Syrian President Bashar Assad's autocratic rule, prompted an outpouring of support from social network users.

Arraf wrote a blog called "A Gay Girl in Damascus," a mixture of erotic prose and updates about Syria's violent uprising, including her participation in anti-regime protests. She was detained after weeks on the run in the Syrian capital, family members said Tuesday.

As soon as Arraf's partner, Sandra Bagaria of Montreal, learned of her disappearance, she quickly turned to Twitter and Facebook for help, The New York Times reported.

By 6 p.m. ET Tuesday, The Free Amina page on Facebook had gained 8,066 followers, up from 150 followers Monday evening. Online support poured in from South America, North America, Europe, Africa and Australia.

"God Bless you, wherever you are may your courage be an example to others. Support and solidarity against repression in any form from Darjeeling, India," posted Kundan Rai on Tuesday. Minutes later, Rim Toum shared this Facebook post: "Support from Tunisia! We think about the Syrian people and wish them to gain their freedom soon."

On Petitionbuzz.com, at least 1,418 people signed an online petition calling for Arraf's release on Tuesday. "Let her go!" wrote Anabelle Vo on the site.

Attempts by msnbc.com to contact Bagaria or family members were unsuccessful Tuesday evening.

'I am complex'
Arraf’s cousin, Rania Ismail, said the blogger was last seen Monday being bundled into a car by three men in civilian clothes. The car, Ismail wrote in a post on her cousin's blog, had a sticker depicting Assad's late brother Basel, according to a friend who was nearby and saw what happened. Basel Assad died before he could inherit the office.

Ismail said Arraf was detained as she and the friend were on their way "to meet a person involved" with the Local Coordination Committee, an activist group that helps organize and document protests calling for an end to the Assad regime.

An activist with the Local Coordination Committees also said Arraf was taken but gave no details.

"We are hoping she is simply in jail and nothing worse has happened to her," Ismail wrote. She added that Arraf had previously sent her texts to post should something happen to her, but she was holding off in hopes of hearing further word from her cousin.

Story: Syria says 120 forces killed in northern 'massacre'

The day before she was detained, Arraf wrote: "I am complex, I am many things; I am an Arab, I am Syrian, I am a woman, I am queer, I am Muslim, I am binational, I am tall, I am too thin; my sect is Sunni, my clan is Omari, my tribe is Quraysh, my city is Damascus," she wrote in www.damascusgaygirl.blogspot.com a day before being detained.

"I am also a Virginian. I was born on an afternoon in a hospital in sight of where Woodrow Wilson entered the world, where streets are named for country stars."

Secret police
Since the uprising against Assad began in mid-March, a government crackdown has left about 1,300 people dead and more than 10,000 detained, according to human rights groups. Several activists who were briefly detained during the revolt said they were tortured, humiliated and forced to sign pledges to avoid anti-regime activities.

In one post, Arraf wrote about taking part in a Damascus protest that was broken up by security forces.

"Busloads of secret police armed with batons — thousands of them — met us around Abbasiyeen Square and began to assault the edges of the crowd," she wrote. "Teargas was lobbed at us. I saw people vomiting from the gas as I covered my own mouth and nose and my eyes burned. ... We broke and were scattered."

But she gained prominence after writing on April 26 about two plainclothes security agents who came to her home to detain her and were argued into leaving by her father. Soon afterward, Arraf and her father went into hiding, changing location frequently in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

Homosexuality is illegal in Syria and gays are frowned upon by the country's conservative society. It is rare for gay Arabs to speak openly about their sexuality, and even rarer for parents to defend them.

"I went into a hair salon one day and, not long after I arrived, I picked up on something between the women working there; I spoke around in circles and so did they and finally learned that the women there were all gay. We relaxed, we talked.

Story: 35 reported killed in Syria crackdown

"I realized I'd found an underground outpost of our kind. I found a cafe where women held hands," she wrote.

Arraf insisted that she wouldn't flee Syria, saying that activists had to fight for a more liberal and democratic country.

In her blog, Arraf wrote that the regime no longer had the power to frighten Syrians.

"For an oppressive system to work, it doesn't need an enormous network of spies, of prisons, of torturers and so on ... it needs just one thing: for the great majority of the people to actually — believe — that the state is mighty and vicious and to be afraid of it."

"And all we ever had to do was to stop being afraid. And the moment that we stopped being afraid, the earth shook. The regime cannot long survive if the people no longer are scared," she wrote.

"They may be deadly but we are not afraid any longer. We are becoming free."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: Syrian crackdown now includes children

  1. Closed captioning of: Syrian crackdown now includes children

    >>> chief foreign correspondent richard engel is in tripoli. the targeting ? of children has been, you know, appalling and brought more world attention to this outrageous situation in syria . what is the latest that you're hearing from your listening post ?

    >> reporter: well, it is almost hard to know where to start. if we start in syria , there has been more violence today. really destabilizing violence. and emotional scenes partly because so many children have been killed. you mentioned that 11-year-old girl. today there is a funeral for a 13-year-old boy. and he was buried and there were large crowds there to support his family. but also to express anger. the body of this boy has been circulated around the internet. it apparently shows severe torture at the hands of syrian government officials . the boy was shot through both arms, shot through both legs, had his genitals cut off and just a horrific image circulating online. and it has become a rallying cry for people and today he was finally buried. so the protests are no means over in syria . and every time there is another child in -- who is killed or when the body is circulated online, it just adds more fuel to the fire , andrea.

    >> and just heart breaking, horrific as you point out. we had word from the white house today that john brennan , the counterterrorism official from the white house , the nsc, is traveling in the region. he's going to sudan, saudi arabia , to the uae and we had word from hillary clinton , secretary of state today, about the continued unrest in yemen . let me play that and ask you about it on the other side.

    >> we cannot expect this conflict to end unless president saleh and his government move out of the way to permit the opposition and civil society to begin a transition to political and economic ? reform.

    >> of course, the united states has been saying a lot of things about yemen . but there has been no impact on president saleh . what is the latest from yemen ?

    >> well, the situation in yemen has completely deteriorated. the united states , as you know, was involved in trying to negotiate a deal for president saleh to leave power. saudi arabia was also involved. that deal has completely broken down and now there is heavy fighting on the streets of sana and has been going on for the last 24 hours or so between government forces and i should say those are still the government forces that are loyal and military units that remain loyal because there have been major divisions within the yemeni forces, but the ones that are still loyal are now fighting against a group of tribes that are well armed, that are motivated, and have decided to try and drive out saleh by force. and those tribesmen who are led particularly by akmar, one of the tribal leaders in that country, are well armed and numerous. they're one of the most powerful organizations in the society. we have the protesters calling on the government to step down. we have the united states and that click you just played saying that the government needs to move aside. and now this powerful faction of tribal leaders taking up arms to try and push the president of yemen out of power.

    >> and richard, while you've been on the air with us, reuters is reporting a large explosion outside of a hotel in benghazi. i want to give you a chance to go off and do some reporting and we don't know any details about this at all except that it is located in benghazi and it is a large hotel and an explosion. so i know we'll see more from you throughout the day on "nbc nightly news."

    >> we'll be looking into that, thank you.

    >> thank you, richard.

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