For more than two weeks, mystery has surrounded the case of a woman who was said to have committed suicide in Uzbekistan after being interrogated by police.
Under the initially reported scenario, Gulsumoi Abdujalilova, a 32-year-old university student in Germany who was home on vacation, killed herself in the eastern region of Andijon on December 4 by swallowing large amounts of pills.
That story, it now turns out, was a hoax that fooled Uzbek human rights activists and the media, including RFE/RL
and the BBC.
Khurshida Jurabayeva, an Uzbek woman who had produced a death certificate for Abdujalilova and photographs of her, acknowledged this week that she had made up the story.
At a press conference in Istanbul on December 19, Jurabayeva said the tale was part of a plot by the Uzbek National Security Service (SNB) to kill Uzbek opposition leader Muhammad Salih.
"According to the plan, I was to arrive to Moscow and go to the UNHCR office to apply for asylum. And afterward, someone would contact me. I was told to introduce this man to Muhammad Salih as my close relative," Jurabayeva said.
"When I asked who this man would be, they said: ‘He would pose as your relative, and after you introduce him, you shouldn’t worry about anything else, he would go and finish him [Muhammad Salih].'"
Abdujalilova's "suicide" and its debunking is a convoluted and cautionary tale.
On December 5, Yelena Urlayeva, chairwoman of the Uzbek nongovernmental organization Human Rights Alliance, told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that Abdujalilova was summoned by Andijon police the previous week and interrogated for four days.
Urlayeva said Abdujalilova was beaten while at the police station and forced to write statements against Salih, the leader of the Erk Democratic party and self-exiled leader of the recently formed opposition People's Movement of Uzbekistan (PMU).
Urlayeva said Abdujalilova left a suicide note in which she wrote: "they tried to make me kill some opposition activists, but it is better if I die myself than to take someone else's life."
Abdujalilova’s Facebook page, which has since disappeared, identified her as a PMU supporter.
Urlayeva said she had learned of the case after receiving a call from someone claiming to be Abdujalilova’s sister.
A friend of Abdujalilova, who asked to remain anonymous, at the time told RFE/RL that he and Abdujalilova often communicated via Skype. He said that she told him that Andijon police had summoned her.
Series Of Doubts
But soon after the suicide was reported, doubts were cast on the story.
The Tashkent-based Uzmetronom news website posted an article suggesting that Abdujalilova never existed. Around the same time, Urlayeva traveled to the Kurghontepa district of the Andijon region to investigate the case.
In a statement last week, she announced that she could not find any trace of Abdujalilova there.
Meanwhile, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service launched its own investigation focusing on photographs of Abdujalilova that had been circulated around the Internet.
A woman identified as Iroda Karabayeva contacted RFE/RL from Germany, saying the purported photographs of Abdujalilova were actually of her.
So RFE/RL arranged for her to meet -- virtually -- with Jurabayeva, the woman who had provided the photographs of Abdujalilova.
In a December 14 confrontation via Skype video conference, Karabayeva said she knew Jurabayeva and did not understand her friend's actions.
"This is my friend Khurshi [diminutive for Khurshida]. I studied with her in Uzbekistan and we both studied in Germany and kept in touch," Karabayeva said. "I do not understand why she is attributing my pictures to some dead girl. I do not know anyone with a name of Gulsumoi."
Jurabayeva, who was in Turkey when the video conference took place, maintained at that point that her story was true and that Karabaeva was lying.
"I don’t know anyone with a name of Iroda. The girl from the picture is Gulsumoi and this girl here looks alike, but is for sure not Gulijon [diminutive for Gulsumoi]. I have no idea about what her purpose is, but Gulsumoi is a real person and recently she committed suicide," Jurabayeva said.
Jurabayeva also produced the copy of a death certificate for Abdujalilova apparently issued by the registry office of Kurgontepa district. The document, signed by a certain M. Khamrayeva, read that Gulsomoi Abdujalilova had died of “respiratory failure.”
RFE/RL contacted the office which issued the document and an unidentified official said they had never heard about the death, and that no one named Gulsomoi Abdujalilova had ever lived in the district. The official also denied anyone bearing the name M. Khamrayeva had worked in their registry office.
The story still leaves many questions unanswered.
Chief among them is -- who was behind this elaborate hoax? And how credible is the confession of Jurabayeva, the woman who was one of the sources for the original suicide story?
The only thing for sure, it seems, is that there was never any Gulsumoi Abdujalilova.
reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service