Opposition journalist's death - was it suicide or murder?

Oleg Bebenin, a journalist and outspoken government critic, was found hanged in his country house near Minsk on 3 September. He had been due to go to the cinema with friends that evening. The police say there is no reason to doubt that he took his own life, but his relatives and colleagues insist that the circumstances of his death were very strange.

Natallya Radzina, the editor of the opposition website that Bebenin founded, Charter 97, told Reporters Without Borders: "We doubt that it was a suicide for many reasons. He was a happy and stable person. Shortly before his death, he joined the campaign team of Andrei Sannikov, who is going to be a candidate in the next presidential election. His relations with his family were fantastic. He loved his work. No suicide note was found..."

The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), a Reporters Without Borders partner organisation and winner of the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize in 2004, has written to the interior minister and attorney general calling for an objective and transparent investigation into Bebenin's death.

Reporters Without Borders interviewed BAJ president Andrei Bastunets about the case:

Reporters Without Borders: Oleg Bebenin's family and colleagues dispute the police claim that it was suicide. Do you think his death was the result of his activities as a journalist and founder of the Charter 97 news website, or his intention to join the team of Andrei Sannikov, who will probably run against President Alexander Lukashenko in the next presidential election?

Andrei Bastunets: The official version, that of suicide, does indeed fuel doubts and raises many questions which are unfortunately likely to remain unanswered. The Charter 97 news website is a very influential opposition site. Oleg Bebenin and those who worked with him have published criticism that could have irritated the authorities. They were often harassed because of their journalistic activities.

But it is extremely difficult at this time to identify the reasons for Oleg's death, whether it was a suicide - and if it was, it is incomprehensible - or whether it was a murder in reprisal for his journalistic activities or perhaps his cooperation with Andrei Sannikov.

RWB: What are the factors that contradict the suicide theory?

AB: Firstly, all those who knew Oleg Bebenin, his colleagues and friends, say he was someone with a very optimistic personality. They have all said he was a very stable person, with a love of life and no depressive tendencies at all. His character and personality completely contradict the official position that it was suicide.

Secondly, Oleg Bebenin had no reason to take his own life. Everything was going well at his work, which he liked, and where he was appreciated and respected. There was no problem in his private life. Everything was going well with his wife and his two children, whom he loved. There was nothing at all to suggest that he might have wanted to kill himself.

Finally, Oleg has arranged meetings for the day of his death and the following days. He had many plans for the imminent future and displayed a lot of optimism. All these factors cast serious doubt on the official position that he committed suicide.

RWB: How have the authorities reacted to the opposition's refusal to believe the official version?

AB: I should point out that the suicide theory is the one being put out at all levels of the state and by the police although the forensic investigation is not yet over. The investigating committee said that all hypotheses would be considered but it is unfortunately probable that, like other cases of journalists who died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances, Oleg's death will never be really clarified.

RWB: How have the local media reacted to the case?

AB: The news of Oleg's death has shocked and upset many people. His fellow journalists cannot believe he is dead. He was a great journalist. His death has been reported everywhere. Even the pro-government media, which usually do not react to criminal cases involving independent journalists, have reported Oleg's death. But only the independent and opposition media have drawn attention to the doubts being expressed about the official version that it was suicide.

RWB: And finally, what is your personal reaction?

AB: 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.

Reporters Without Borders is itself deeply saddened by Bebenin's tragic death and offers its full moral support to his family and colleagues. It urges the authorities to carry out an objective investigation that does not rule out the possibility that he was killed because of his work as a journalist. His professionalism, courage and determination as a journalist deserve to be honoured. He continued to fight for independent journalism in Belarus despite being kidnapped in 1997 and physically attacked in 1999.


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