Suicide suspected in Belarus activist's death - Summary

Minsk/Moscow- An autopsy was held on Saturday to determine the cause of death of a prominent Belarusian opposition activist just months before a presidential election.

The body of Oleg Bebenin, one of the founders of Charter 97, was discovered at his summer cottage, not far from the capital Minsk, on Friday.

The 36-year-old probably took his own life, the prosecutor- general's office said after the autopsy.

Supporters of Bebenin rule out suicide in a country where journalists and human rights activists have died mysteriously in the past.

The prosecutor's office said the activist was found hanged, with an overturned stool on the floor nearby.

"There was no indication of a struggle inside the house or on the body of the deceased," the news agency Interfax quoted the prosecutor's office as saying.

Prominent opposition figure Andrei Sannikov said he gave little credence to the suicide theory, pointing out that no suicide note was found.

Natalia Radina, who operated the website with Bebenin, shared this view. "He was married, had two children and had great plans," she said.

The Interior Ministry in Minsk had said earlier that initial investigations revealed no evidence of a violent death.

Bebenin was the former deputy chief editor of Imya, an independent Belarusian newspaper. In 1998, he founded, a website that is critical of the government of President Alexander Lukashenko, who is often referred to by human rights activists as "Europe's last dictator."

In May, Belarus' authoritarian government unleashed a series of home searches against opposition activists, arresting a number of government critics temporarily.

Masked policemen carried out the nationwide raids over several days in the widest-reaching crackdown against dissent in the former Soviet republic in two years, opposition spokesmen said.

Lukashenko ordered the raids personally in preparation for an election next year. The president late last year imposed state censorship of the internet.

The president is expected to announce soon the date for a new election, which could be held later this year.


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