Belarus opposition sends SOS after suspicious death


EUOBSERVER /BRUSSELS - Belarus opposition leader Jaroslav Romanchuk has called for EU support in the run-up to presidential elections following the death of a reporter in suspicious circumstances.

Mr Romanchuk, who is to run for president in the upcoming vote, told EUobserver by phone from Minsk on Sunday (5 September) that the death of internet journalist Aleh Byabenin, who was found hanged on Friday, looks like foul play.

"In the context of the presidential election campaign, we have grounds to believe that this may be not a suicide, but a murder. It may be designed to harm the operations of his website or it may be a way to intimidate democracy activists, to intimidate people who would like to join the fight against the regime," he said.

"We need a lot of attention and focus, because if the international community is watching what's going on in Belarus, that's part of the security policy we have. If we do not feel the West is watching us, the regime will feel free to intimidate people, to commit acts of aggression."

Mr Byabenin was found hanged in his cottage outside Minsk at 5.30pm local time on Friday. The 36-year-old father of two sons had shown no signs of depression, left no suicide note and had sent phone messages to his friends on Thursday about going to the cinema, according to his website

He co-founded the webpage in 1998 and had already had two run-ins with the authorities. The KGB, the Belarusian secret police, briefly abducted him in 1997. A skinhead gang believed to be working for the authorities beat him up in 1999, said.

The President of the EU parliament, Jerzy Buzek, over the weekend issued a statement on Mr Byanbenin's death, saying: "I am deeply moved by this sad event ... I call on the Belarusian authorities to carry out a full and transparent investigation."

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton had not responded as of Monday. But EU diplomats based in Belarus are looking into the case. "Very little is known about the circumstances of his death, and at this stage nothing can be excluded," one contact said.

The Belarusian parliament is to announce the date of the presidential election during its next session, which starts on 7 September. The vote is expected to take place before the end of the year.

President Alexander Lukashenka is currently involved in a tug-of-war between the EU and Russia. The EU has tried to pull him closer in the past two years by lifting travel sanctions and sending VIPs to meet him in Minsk. Russia has created pressure by cutting off gas supplies and broadcasting anti-Lukashanka TV shows.

Mr Romanchuk predicted there will be election fraud and said his supporters will come out on the streets in a repeat of events five years ago.

The economist is running on a pro-business and pro-democracy ticket. He is calling for the "full integration" of Belarus into the EU after a transition period in which the country negotiates free trade agreements with its neighbours and joins the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organisation.

Asked if he fears violence in the run-up to the poll, he said: "That's why we need Europe, the EU, to keep a careful eye and close attention on what's going on in Belarus. To come to Belarus. To take part in the election campaign, to send long-term monitors, to reinforce the OSCE observation mission."


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