Would the Popular Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU) deliberately create a fake martyr in order to gain sympathy in the West, even as they scared away potential recruits as the accounts of a Facebook-outed supporter's suicide surface? That seems unlikely, given that the group has already suffered a real assassination of its leader in Russia, and has steadily gained followers on Facebook that it would not want to jeopardize.
So while questions can be asked about the gullibility of human rights activists and the perfidy of exile political operatives as the semi-official uzmetronom.com is doing today, and as Inside the Cocoon has noted, what’s more likely is that the story is concocted by Uzbek intelligence to discredit everything but itself.
When I first saw Elena Urlaeva's story of the tragic suicide of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova, a young Uzbek student, on the Google group Human Rights in Central Asia, I was immediately struck by a tell-tale feature that has been a hallmark of stories involving exiled opposition movements and the secret police who try to infiltrate them since the Soviet era.
In this classic scenario, a secret agent travels abroad on assignment to kill an émigré politican opposing the regime. But once abroad, he has a supposed change of heart and tells the émigré that he was going to murder him, but will now switch sides. In some variations, the secret agent becomes a double agent and, exploiting the new-found trust he has gained by purporting to defect, goes on to inform on his one-time target.
Such was the story in 1954 of Georgiy S. Okolovich, leader of the NTS émigré organization, and his would-be KGB assassin, Captain Nikolay Khokhlov, who defected. Whether exploited by émigré groups to amplify their importance in the West, or manipulated by secret police to infiltrate exile organizations, it’s a very old story, and there are many more like it.
So mindful of that classic meme I waited to check the story; I saw that it was reported by RFE/RL, which added an important detail: a friend of Abdujalilova's said she communicated with her via Skype and said that the Andijan police had summoned her for interrogation.
I went over the story carefully and noticed several tell-tale gaps that suggested either the opposition or the intelligence services of Uzbekistan could be manipulating this story. As we can see from the independent web site uznews.net, the suicide note is not published and we have only a second-hand account of the victim’s ordeal from her sister. Also, tellingly, in one statement, the sister refers merely to “some opposition members” and it is Urlaeva who says she believes them to be the PMU; in another statement the sister makes mention of Erk opposition party leader Muhammad Salih. Even so, I felt the story had to be covered as a shocking event in the community.
Urlaeva has handled hundreds cases, and likely has a feeling for what seems authentic. This is a woman who hunkers down in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan with children forced to pick cotton in order to get the story, and a woman who has this past month, fended off several attempts by officials to threaten her with psychiatric incarceration.
In her Google group account, fuller than the story in uznews.net, Urlaeva says she called the hotlines of both the Interior Ministry of Uzbekistan as well as Andijan region seeking information about this claimed detention. When Urlaeva made these calls, she didn't later report that she got an answer that said "We have no such person" -- which can be all too frequently the result when human rights defenders work on a case. That suggests that Gulsumoy may exist. Mohlara said that the policemen on the hot line had even yelled at her because she had complained about her sister's case to Urlaeva. Urlaeva worked on this case in good faith, and like any case where there was little information, her organization put out a statement asking for further investigation.
Uzmetronom.com is a site that frequently prints leaks from the power ministries of Uzbekistan and has also frequently run disparaging articles about the Uzbek opposition, so it has developed a reputation as being close to the Uzbek government, even if sometimes critical of certain figures and even if sporting the "banned in Uzbekistan" logo. This week, for example, the editor mourns his sudden sense of orphanhood upon learning that President Islam Karimov, who has been in power for 22 years, has announced that he has shortened the presidential term
Drawing on their deep knowledge of how "the organs" work, the uzmetronom.com editors tell us that no self-respecting policeman would ever be so operationally careless as to discuss with a mere female student plans to have her kill an opposition leader abroad. To be sure, given that the allegation is that the Interior Ministry, and not the Ministry of National Security had Gulsumoy in custody, that is yet another red flag for this story, and yet there has been at least one Interior Ministry defector who claimed he was tasked with monitoring exiles abroad and brought out an internal secret memo claiming to give instructions for surveillance.
Uzmetronom.com cites "confidential" information that according to a (blazingly fast for Uzbekistan) search of local administration records, and even another (amazing) use of personal channels to the German border police, no such person by the name of Gulsumoy Abdujalilova has been recorded. Uzmetronom.com also mentions a telephone number said to belong to the sister that was supposedly published, but doesn't name the publication. In Urlaeva's original account, there is reprinted what purports to be the Interior Ministry hotline number, not the sister's telephone.
The article ends by casting doubts on Urlaeva's account -- at a time when the government is already making a concerted effort to shut her up for her accounts of forced child labor and torture in prisons -- saying perhaps the opposition was exploiting her "naivete". Urlaeva never saw Gulsumoy, alive or dead, but didn't claim to have seen her; she merely responded to a plea to help from a woman saying she was her sister. Uzmetronom.com concludes that the entire story is a provocation cooked up by Salih to gain sympathy and international response.
Even mindful of a meme that both emigre politicians and secret policemen have used in this region for decades, it does seem a bridge too far to accuse the PMU of such a manipulative act. They would have to know that a backlash such as has come from uzmetronom.com would be expected and discredit them.
Meanwhile, human rights activists and bloggers can only ask for Gulsumoy's sister Mohlara -- who has fallen strangely silent -- to come forward with identification, the suicide note, and more details. Understandably she could be intimidated into silence, if the story is true -- or partly true. The German government could also be queried. And everyone should revisit their Facebook privacy settings.