Schrödinger’s President

Monitoring social media for confirmation of Uzbek leader Islam Karimov’s death

Left: Photograph posted in the “Health to Karimov” Facebook group (source). Right: Photograph from Panoramio user ksskimsing of the Hizrat Khiz Mosque. (source)

Rumours are swirling in over the state of health of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov. The government has confirmed that he is ‘critically ill’, saying that his health deteriorated rapidly over the past 24 hours.

However, Reuters quotes three diplomatic sources as saying that the president is already dead. This tallies with earlier opposition claims that he died this week, but his death was concealed until after the 1 September Independence Day celebrations. What can digital forensics tell us about the president who is both dead and alive, depending on the news source?

Images are circulating online purporting to show preparations for a massive state funeral. Facebook group “Health to Karimov” (Здоровья Каримову) posted images of construction work at the Samarkand cemetery close to the Shahi Zinda monument, and reported that thousands of workers were cleaning the city’s central avenues and squares. Leading Uzbekistan expert Sarah Kendzior tweeted, “Judging by the amount of ground I’m seeing dug up in pics sent from Samarkand, this will be a massive funeral”.

The mosque in the background of the pictures appears to be the Hazrat Khizr mosque, on the edge of the Samarkand cemetery.

Comparison of the Hazrat Khiz Mosque at the edge of the Samarkand cemetery now, showing that the construction is happening at the same location.

Kendzior later tweeted confirming the Reuters report.

Separately, RFE’s Uzbek service posted pictures of the clean-up operation, reporting that Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoev had flown urgently to Samarkand. The Guardian’s Shaun Walker had earlier tweeted a report that all major officials had had their mobile phones blocked by the secret services.

Furthermore, a video appeared today on YouTube supposedly showing the transport of Karimov’s body in Samarkland. The video has not yet been geolocated, but would likely be near the Samarkland International Airport, as reflected by the location of the event at LiveUAMap in response to rumors that the body was delivered by plane and the crowd was near the airport in anticipation.

Despite the fact that the government has not yet confirmed the president’s death, Uzbek social media have been overwhelmed with tributes to Karimov, with his most avid supporters saying he passed away on the same day he gifted the country its independence 25 years ago. There were no mentions of corruption, politically motivated torture or forced child labour, all of which flourished during his rule.

Some of the tributes we found and translated:

“Thank you for the peaceful sky… We thank you for not knowing what war is… Thank you for protecting us for the past 25 years…”
“Thank you for the peaceful sky”
“We love you forever”
“We remember, we love, we mourn you”
“He left on the same day that he gave us freedom” [refers to him passing away on / around independence day celebrated on September 1]
“You were our hope and support. You protected us from troubles with your love. But the day of your end came mercilessly. At once, all happiness is gone. It’s impossible to accept that you’re no longer with us. No one knows when the troubles will come, only faith is responsible for that. But you went quickly, for ever. You went there, where there is no return. All happiness left with you, leaving us with sadness and pain. Sleep, darling, my love in the Heavenly Kingdom. And may you rest in peace [emojis].”

There are conflicting reports on Karimov’s death even within Russian state news organizations, with conflicting reports from Interfax (Karimov dead per Uzbek sources) and RIA Novosti (Uzbek denial of statement). Interfax later retracted their story on Karimov’s death, blaming a “technical error.”

Screenshot of tweets from Interfax, with the first tweet declaring the death of Karimov, and the second tweet stating “Not dead!”

However, there is also the danger of fake information outside of official state news agencies, such as a newly-created Twitter account @UzbekistanPres tweeting out information on the death of Karimov.

https://twitter.com/UzbekistanPres/status/771704077973655552

There appears to be a growing consensus that Karimov is, indeed, already dead, and the government is preparing the ground, both literally and metaphorically, for a massive state mourning operation. In such a tightly-controlled information environment, and with Karimov’s succession undecided, it is unclear when the next step will be made, still less who will take his place. To judge by the tone on social media, the mourning and the uncertainty have already begun.

The following accounts can be followed for updates on the situation:

Instagram: #ИсламКаримов #withKarimov

Twitter: #ИсламКаримов #withKarimov

@SarahKendzior

@Dan_Fergana

Facebook: Здоровья Каримову

Keep an eye on these accounts, along with the DFRLab Facebook and Twitter accounts, for further updates.

UPDATE: The Uzbek government and its state media has confirmed the death of Islam Karimov. The funeral will be held in Samarkand on September 3.