The life and tragic death of Uzbek woman Gulsumoy Abdujalilova turned out to be fake, but her meaning for dissident movements in closed societies like Uzbekistan's is all too real
A screenshot of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova's now notorious (and now deleted) Facebook page
On July 28, 2011, a 32-year-old Uzbek woman studying in Munich named Gulsumoy Abdujalilova joined Facebook, except she didn't. Then, earlier this month, after horrific abuses from the Uzbekistan government, she tragically and spectacularly took her own life, except she didn't, because she had never existed in the first place.
Beginning this summer, someone launched an elaborate hoax that fooled members of the Uzbek opposition, Uzbek human rights community, the Uzbek and English-language media-- and me. Over four months, Gulsumoy updated her page several times each week. She wrote about mundane events -- missing her mother, getting the flu, the arrival of Ramadan -- and, often, about politics. Gulsumoy posted links to stories about corruption in the Uzbek government and protest movements organized by Uzbeks abroad.
In August, she listed the People's Movement of Uzbekistan (O'zbekiston Xalq Harakati), an Uzbek opposition movement formed in May 2011, under "work". For Gulsumoy, as for most Uzbeks, who live under a harsh and repressive regime, the internet provided the only way to participate in dissident politics. She befriended other Uzbek dissident, posting on their walls, chatting with them on Skype, and writing to them over email. On November 15, she updated her status with an Uzbek proverb: "You learn who your real friends are when you are in trouble." This was her final post.
On December 5, a reporter from the Uzbek-language branch of the BBC tweeted that an Uzbek activist had killed herself, following a brutal interrogation by the Uzbek national security services. This seemed plausible -- as a new report from Human Rights Watch makes clear, torture and arbitrary detainment are common in Uzbekistan.
The next day, reporters from BBC, Radio Free Europe, and the well-regarded Uzbek-language websites Ferghana.ru and Uznews.net confirmed that the activist in question was Gulsumoy Abdujalilova. According to their sources, Gulsumoy had returned to Uzbekistan from Germany and was detained and interrogated by the national security services for four days. Upon her release, she committed suicide, leaving behind a note saying that the national security services tortured her and asked her to carry out acts of violence against Uzbek opposition leaders living abroad. The brutality of the case shocked Uzbek activists, particularly those who had met her online. Several claimed that they knew Gulsumoy through her Facebook page, which seemed to be her only public connection to the dissident community.
A few days later, Uzmetronom, a website known for printing scandalous stories about both the Uzbek government and the opposition, posted a story on December 8 claiming that Gulsumoy was a fraud. In Uzbekistan, Elena Urlaeva, a prominent human rights advocate who had learned of the case after receiving a call from someone claiming to be Gulsumoy's sister, began her own investigation. Using information that members of the Uzbek opposition had received from whomever was pretending to be Gulsumoy, she discovered that Gulsumoy had never lived, much less died. A search in Munich by Uzbek exiles there yielded the same result -- or, that is, no result. Finding no trace of Gulsumoy's existence, Uzbek activists conceded that the whole thing was a hoax. The Facebook page, which disappeared on December 14 without explanation, was a fake. So was every detail of the Gulsumoy Abdujalilova story: the note, the pictures of her sent to Uzbek media sites, and the phone calls like the one Elena Urlaeva had received.
One question remained -- why?
People involved in Uzbek politics are accustomed to rumor and lies. It's common practice to assume that all information is unreliable and all sources biased, which ensures that all rumors are taken seriously. Rumor is not automatically believed, of course, so much as it is shared, parsed, and discussed -- sometimes far beyond what its dubious origins might merit. The result of ubiquitous paranoia is not disbelief. It is credulity.
The Gulsumoy Abdujalilova case is not the first scandal to play out on the Uzbek political internet. Over the past decade, opposition members have been accused of being Uzbek security officials, Uzbek security officials have claimed sympathy with the opposition, and members of the fractious dissident community have held endless debates about the loyalty and motives of activists within their tanks. In 2005, Uzbek dissidents took to the internet after a massacre of protesters sent hundreds into exile abroad, where many of them established themselves online for the first time.
Yet while the internet allowed dissidents to overcome the communication barriers inherent in geographic dispersion and political repression, it did little to alleviate long-standing internal feuds. The internet is a useful tool, but it raises questions of anonymity, authorship, and audience that are far more problematic for activists operating in a cynical political culture -- a hallmark of Uzbekistan's dictatorship-- than for activists in more open societies.
You might think that someone should have seen something like Gulsumoy Abdujalilova coming. But there aren't always clear ways to establish, prove, or disprove political trust online for citizens of an authoritarian state. When suspicions about Gulsumoy's existence were first raised, one friend of mine, a fellow communications scholar who studies the former USSR, looked at Gulsumoy's page and immediately pronounced it a fake. When I asked her why, she admitted she didn't really have a reason -- it just felt fake.
Looking at the page again, there are signs that might stand out for a Western audience: the lack of any real photos (Gulsumoy used a headshot of a Turkish model for her profile picture-- it was openly not her photo, like when someone uses a celebrity's picture as a joke), the dearth of comments from her 114 friends, the use of a pseudonym (she posted under "Gulsumoy Andijon," a reference to the site of the 2005 massacre), and the heavy emphasis on the political over the personal. But to see these as signs of a hoax assumes a normative standard of what a Facebook profile "should" look like. Many Uzbeks are selective or even deceptive about what they reveal about themselves on Facebook, for they are aware that the government is watching them and know giving too much up could be risky. They use Facebook to access information, not to share it. They use Facebook not to define themselves, but to find refuge, however tenuous, from the state's definition of who they are, what they can say, and who they could become.
When all information is assumed fraudulent and all sources suspect, when your worst suspicions about your government are routinely confirmed and denied, when online communication -- itself nebulous and malleable -- is your only means of interaction, what do you do? You follow your principles. "I have always believed people who need help, and while sometimes I don't have time and opportunity to respond to a call immediately, I always try to help people honestly and sincerely to the best of my ability, something that is very much needed in Uzbekistan," Urlaeva, the activist who futilely tried to track down the Gulsumoy case, told EurasiaNet. But in Uzbekistan, following your principles often gets you nowhere. And there's not much you can do about it.