INTERNATIONAL RIGHTS groups are demanding a full and open investigation into the death of opposition Belarusian journalist Oleg Bebenin, after relatives and colleagues rejected official claims that he hanged himself.
Belarusian police said Mr Bebenin (36) was found at his country cottage last Friday with a noose around his neck close to an upturned stool. They said there was no evidence that anyone else was involved in his death.
Friends, family members and prominent activists insist that Mr Bebenin was not a suicide risk, however. They say his death could well be linked to his work with outspoken website Charter 97 and his support for an opponent of President Alexander Lukashenko in forthcoming elections.
Mr Lukashenko has run Belarus for 16 years, putting huge pressure on independent media and opposition parties. He was dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the United States before launching a tentative rapprochement with the West in recent years. Several political opponents and journalists have disappeared or been murdered during his rule.
"The death of Bebenin is a great loss to Belarusian journalism," said Dunja Mijatovic, media freedom chief of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
"I call on the Belarusian authorities to conduct an independent investigation into this tragic death. This is particularly important to avoid exacerbating the chilling effect on Belarusian media that questions over his death would have."
The Council of Europe and the president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, also called for a transparent investigation into Mr Bebenin's death. He had a wife and two children.
"I was at the site of the tragedy and I don't believe Oleg Bebenin committed suicide," said Andrei Sannikov, the opposition leader whom Mr Bebenin was helping with his campaign. "It is odd that the interior ministry should speak of suicide before waiting for the autopsy results. No suicide note was found and the last text messages he sent to friends showed that he had plans to go to the cinema on Thursday night.
"We know that Oleg was kidnapped in 1997, Oleg was beaten, Oleg was threatened. Neither his recent behaviour nor his behaviour on the day [of his death)] . . . gave any indication that such a tragedy might occur by his own hand."
Mr Bebenin was arrested several times by Mr Lukashenko's security services - which are still called the KGB - and they recently raided the office of his Charter 97 website and seized computers.
Another opposition leader, Jaroslav Romanchuk, said Mr Bebenin could have been killed to "to harm the operations of his website or to intimidate democracy activists . . . who would like to join the fight against the regime".
TAKING SIDES: BELARUS WOOED BY BRUSSELS AND MOSCOW
THE death of leading Belarusian journalist Oleg Bebenin has thrown a spotlight back on to a country ruled for 16 years by President Alexander Lukashenko.
The former collective farm boss came to power in 1994 on an anti- corruption ticket, but quickly set about emasculating free media and political opposition, isolating his country from disapproving western nations and making it deeply reliant on neighbouring Russia.
Mr Lukashenko (56) and his regime are subject to EU and US sanctions, but Brussels has suspended the measures in the hope of improving ties with Belarus and drawing it out of Russia's sphere of influence and closer to western neighbours like Poland and Lithuania.
The Belarusian leader's relations with Moscow have soured in recent years over Russia's increasing unwillingness to subsidise energy supplies to his country.
Belarus secured a EUR1.8 billion international loan in late 2008 to help it weather the economic crisis.