The reported disappearance of a gay Syrian-American blogger has attracted skepticism after a London woman claimed the photos published by news organizations worldwide are of her, not of the blogger, and that the blogger stole her identity a year ago.
Amina Arraf, known for her criticism of Syrian President Bashar Assad and her open posts about sexuality on a blog called "A Gay Girl in Damascus," was last seen Monday evening being forced into a car in Syria's capital, her cousin, Rania Ismail, said. News sites, including msnbc.com, reported the 35-year-old writer's disappearance on Tuesday, along with a photo of her.
On Wednesday, a London publicist said photos circulating are actually of Jelena Lecic, a Croatian woman who works as an administrator at the Royal College of Physicians in London. Lecic believes her identity has been used before by Arraf.
"Just over a year ago, a friend called Jelena up and said, 'Do you have another identity up on Facebook? Because there's someone else who has your pictures up but not your name," publicist Julius Just told msnbc.com. "She and her friend complained, and Facebook removed it, and she believed it was the end of the matter."
But when news of Arraf's disappearance broke, Just said Lecic saw her photo alongside the story in London's Guardian newspaper. It was one of the same photos her friend had spotted on Facebook a year ago under a different profile name: Amina Abdalla Arraf.
Lecic called The Guardian to request the photo be taken down, only to find it replaced with another photo of her.
“I pray that Amina is safely returned to her family but I want to make it quite clear that I am not her despite my photographs being attached to this story,” Lecic said in a press release.
Lecic's Facebook profile shows her with dark hair and a distinct mole above her left eye, which was visible in the photos circulated that purported to be Arraf.
Her publicist said he questioned whether Arraf was a real person.
"She could be a composite. Who knows? She claims online that she was born in the United States, but researchers can find no records of her born in the U.S.," Just told msnbc.com. "Why would you take another woman's identity and claim it as your own? If she is real, Jelena is extremely concerned for her and her family, but her identity has been stolen. This is a serious situation."
Just said Lecic does not know Arraf and has no connection to her. The photos appeared to be lifted from Lecic's Facebook account, but she does not know by whom.
No face-to-face interaction with the blogger
Meanwhile, other skeptics pointed out that no one — including a woman who initially claimed she was Arraf's girlfriend — has publicly said they have met the blogger in person.
NPR journalist and Middle East social media expert Andy Carvin reported he could not find anyone who had met Arraf in person. Various journalists said they had interviewed Arraf in the past via email or text chat, including a CNN.com reporter who published quotes emailed from Arraf in a story last month.
And a Canadian woman living in Montreal who identified herself as Arraf's girlfriend in interviews with The New York Times, The Global Winnipeg, and Al Jazeera later clarified that she has only communicated with Arraf via email, not face-to-face.
The photos that Lecic claim are hers were removed from news sites, as well as from a Facebook page dedicated to finding Arraf, called "Free Amina Abdalla." Artists' renditions of the blogger were put up instead.
Addressing the controversy about Arraf's identity, the owner of the Facebook page wrote, "At the time this site was created, there was no reason to doubt her authenticity of the story ... We think it is possible that the writer of the blog is indeed in custody, in which case, it is important to continue to support her. Many people in Syria are forced to use alternative identities to protect themselves."
Messages from msnbc.com left for Arraf's cousin and girlfriend were not returned.