Human rights watchdogs join Belarussian opposition in demanding inquiry into death of Charter 97 campaigner Oleg Bebenin
Oleg Bebenin, arrest Undated photograph of dead Belarussian media activist Oleg Bebenin (centre) being arrested by riot police in Minsk. Photograph: EPA
International pressure was today growing for an independent inquiry into the death of a leading Belarussian journalist and opposition activist who was found dead at his country house last week.
Friends of Oleg Bebenin rejected government claims that the journalist had killed himself, saying they believed he had been murdered.
Bebenin was the director of Charter97.org, one of the most prominent opposition media websites in Belarus, and a unique source of information about the regime.
He was found hanged at his summer house, on the outskirts of Minsk, late on Friday afternoon. Today his colleague and friend Andrei Sannikov said no suicide note had been found, adding: "There were no signs either physically or emotionally he would take such a step."
Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister, said he was deeply suspicious of the official account of the "suicide", and that SMS messages from Bebenin's phone sent before his death may have been written by someone else.
There was no evidence Bebenin spent the night in the house, as investigators claim, said Sannikov. "Everything was very tidy. There was no sign of a fire," he said.
Belarus's opposition was seeking more evidence, he added.
Opposition groups and critical media in Belarus have faced sustained pressure from the government of President Alexander Lukashenko, a paternalistic hardliner who brooks no dissent and has run the former soviet republic since 1994. Since Lukashenko came to power, a series of politicians and journalists have been imprisoned, killed, abducted and subjected to mock executions, or have simply disappeared.
Bebenin played a key role in organising protests against Lukashenko's repressive government, and co-founded the Charter 97 opposition movement. His apparent murder comes as Lukashenko, who has been dubbed Europe's last dictator, begins his campaign for re-election ahead of a presidential poll in February.
Sannikov said he had no confidence in the official investigation: "It's impossible in this situation of dictatorship. Eleven years have passed since the first disappearances began in Belarus and nothing was investigated."
Sannikov is planning to challenge Lukashenko in February's presidential election, and Bebenin was a key member of his campaign team.
Friends have this week likened Bebenin to Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and human rights campaigner murdered in Moscow in 2006. "In journalism you can compare him to Anya [Politkovskaya]," Sannikov said. "But as an opposition activist he was much more multifaceted. He was very talented in many areas."
Europe's top human rights watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), called on Monday for an independent investigation into the murder, warning of the "chilling effect" on the Belarussian media if a proper inquiry is not held. Today Mike Harris, the public affairs manager of Index on Censorship, said the death "has sent shock waves through civil society in Belarus".
Russia's state-controlled television - which is typically silent when its own journalists are murdered inside Russia - has reported extensively on Bebenin's death. The coverage reflects the severe deterioration in relations between Minsk and Moscow, which over the summer escalated into a full-blown information war. The Kremlin has lost patience with Lukashenko and now appears keen to get rid of him.
Harris said that in the wake of Bebenin's suspicious death the European Union should consider re-imposing its formerly stringent sanctions on Belarus and its leadership. Sanctions were softened two years ago. The EU is due to discuss whether to prolong them in late October.
Harris added that the EU, the US and Russia, who frequently struggle to agree on international issues, could act jointly on Belarus.