EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The office of EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton has urged Belarus to hold a credible investigation into the recent death of opposition activist Aleh Byabenin.
"We are saddened to hear about his tragic death. He was a key contributor to pushing the reform agenda in Belarus. We join others in calling for a full, independent and transparent investigation into the cause of his death," Ms Ashton's spokeswoman Maja Kocjanic said on Thursday (9 September).
Protesters hold up pictures of disappeared opposition activists in Belarus (Photo: charter97.org)
When asked by EUobserver if the incident could affect the EU's review of travel sanctions on Belarus' authoritarian President Aleksander Lukashanko, due in October, she added that: "We are very mindful of the human rights situation in the country."
The low-grade statement comes one week after Mr Byabenin was found hanged in a country cottage in suspicious circumstances. In the EU's diplomatic hierarchy, the most weight is carried by a statement made by Ms Ashton on behalf of the EU countries. The second weightiest is a statement made by Ms Ashton in her own name.
The Belarus foreign ministry on Thursday said it would invite officials from the Vienna-based pro-democracy body, the OSCE, to help shed light on the incident.
"The invitation of foreign experts is an unprecedented step for not only Belarus but also European countries. It has been prompted by our concern about the insinuations that not only the media but also international institutions are making," foreign ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh said, the independent Belarusian news agency, Belapan, reports.
The move was given a cautious welcome by fellow opposition activists, who noted that the composition of any OSCE delegation and the quality of the evidence submitted by Minsk should be scrutinised.
The case of Mr Byabenin, who is said to have helped co-found the anti-government news website Charter97.org in 1998, has also been taken up by the Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), even though it is unclear what kind of work he actually did for the Charter97.org outfit.
The head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Andrei Bastunets, told RSF in an interview published on its webpage: "I would just like to say that if the theory that it was a murder aimed at intimidating journalists and civil society is true, then it definitely has not worked. It has not caused fear, just a deep sadness."
Coming in an already febrile pre-election political climate, Mr Byabenin's death has generated widespread speculation inside the country.
The police dismissed it as suicide before carrying out a proper forensic study. Some commentators believe it could be an attempt to discredit Mr Lukashenko by a rebellious faction in the country's security services. Others see it as part of an extended Russian campaign to harm Belarus-EU ties.
Svyatlana Kalinkina, the deputy-editor of opposition newspaper Narodnaya Volya in an editorial last weekend put forward the Belarusian security services theory only to receive a threatening note the next day.
The hand-delivered message was written on a card bearing the opposition logo "Tell the Truth!" The message said "Kalinkina is a mean stinker. Tell the truth about yourself. Live and fear. A hunt for traitors has begun. Tell the truth or we'll shut you the fuck up."