More thorough investigation into journalist's death needed

The Minsk prosecutor general today closed the investigation into journalist Oleg Bebenin's death, concluding that it was suicide. One of Belarus' leading opposition journalists and the founder of Charter, a website critical of the government, Bebenin was found hanged at his country home near Minsk on 3 September.

Reporters Without Borders is concerned that Bebenin's death has not been given a thorough and objective investigation, one that would examine the possible political motives and might uncover evidence supporting the suspicion that he was murdered.

Bebenin's death sent shockwaves through the international community. European Parliament president Jerzy Buzek called for a thorough and transparent investigation on 5 September. His call was reiterated the next day by Dunja Mijatovic, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's media freedom representative.

Under international pressure, the Belarusian authorities agreed to an investigation by two OSCE experts. In a statement issued by the OSCE on 23 November, the two experts said the evidence collected at the scene and the autopsy results supported the official conclusion that it was a suicide.

But Bebenin's colleagues and government opponents, including members of the "European Belarus" movement, have accused the OSCE experts of conducting nothing more than a forensic examination of the evidence provided to them by the prosecutor's office.

"European Belarus" coordinator Zmitser Bandarenka told Reporters Without Borders: "It gives the impression that the experts were just the puppets of the Belarusian government's political game." Andrei Sannikov, a leading opposition presidential candidate, said: "What have they confirmed? That he died by hanging. We have never disputed that. What remains unanswered is whether or not it was suicide."

Bebenin was an influential opposition figure who often criticised the government and President Alexander Lukashenko on the website. He had been planning to join Sannikov's campaign team for the presidential election, which is due to take place on 19 December. The political murder theory was plausible and should be explored.

Reporters Without Borders appeals to European Union officials and the OSCE not to settle for this report and instead to open a new independent investigation that is not limited to the existing evidence but looks at the circumstances surrounding Bebenin's death.

The theory of a murder needs to be explored in the light of the death threats that Bebenin had received in the preceding months. As Lukashenko, the country's president for the past 16 years, prepares to be elected for a fifth consecutive term, we need to know whether the European Union and OSCE want to render to justice to the democratic values and freedom of expression that Bebenin represented. When Bebenin's body was discovered, the prosecutor's office lost no time in saying it appeared to have been suicide, highlighting the fact two empty alcohol bottles were found near the body. His friends all disputed this claim, pointing out that he had no personal or professional problems and no suicide note was found.


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