By Roland Oliphant
Opposition Presidential Candidate Andrei Sannikov Pledged to Keep on Fighting Despite the Suspicious Death of His Campaign Manager
When Russia Profile spoke to Belarusian Opposition Leader Andrei Sannikov last Thursday, he was relaxed. Harassment by the authorities was ongoing, but at "normal" levels. Just days later, his campaign manager, opposition journalist Oleg Bebenin, was found dead at his dacha. The authorities have declared the case a suicide, but there was no note and he had arranged to meet friends at the cinema. Is Belarus returning to the dark days of disappearances and political murder?
Oleg Bebenin was found dead at his dacha outside Minsk on Friday. There was a noose around his neck - made from his son's hammock, according to some reports - and nearby a fallen stool. Police have proclaimed the death a suicide.
Bebenin was one of the best known opposition journalists in Belarus, distinguished, as the Kommersant daily wrote in its obituary, for his "irreconcilable" relations with the authorities. He was originally a deputy editor of the newspaper Imya, which was shut down by the Belarusian authorities in 1998. He went on to co-found the Web site Charter 97, an information service that has become synonymous with opposition to the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. Recently he had taken a back seat from the world of journalism to manage the presidential campaign of Andrei Sannikov, another Charter 97 co-founder who is standing as an opposition candidate in the upcoming elections, due to take place by February.
The sudden death of the healthy, active 36-year-old has raised the terrifying prospect that Belarus is returning to the dark days of 1997 to 1999, when a spate of disappearances and murders of opposition figures gave Lukashenko the reputation of the last dictator in Europe. "I don't think it was suicide," Sannikov told Russia Profile. "The more we learn, the more suspicious details emerge," he said.
The suspicious details include that Bebenin had shown no signs of depression, and seemed to have plans. He had arranged to meet friends at a cinema (the last they heard from him was a text message, sent on Thursday evening, telling them not to wait for him at a cafİ before hand but to meet him at the theater).
At the scene, the noose the body was hanging from was so low that his feet were touching the floor. Empty bottles of Belorussian Balsam, a popular spirit based drink were found under a sofa. But friends told Kommersant that as a "connoisseur of fine drink" Oleg would never have touched the stuff. Besides, he was driving to and from his dacha, and would not have drunk ahead of travel.
And there's more, said Sannikov, who was quickly on the scene. If the authorities had conducted a proper investigation, or if they hadn't already decided the outcome, they would have sealed off the house for a proper forensic examination - something Sannikov said they did not do. "I saw a bruise on his left hand. His leg was bent abnormally. And there was no strangulation mark on his neck," he said. "When I went there, they told me it had happened that day. But after the autopsy they told me it had happened the day before. So there are all these little things that are being concealed."
In an apparent response to strong criticism from Bebenin's friends, who have been widely interviewed in the Russian media, a spokesperson for the Belarusian prosecutor's office told Radio Svoboda that investigators had "not put a full stop" to their enquiries, and that "everything is still being probed into, suicide and other leads. If it was a suicide, the reasons and motives will be looked into. We will provide information about the results," Charter 97 reported on Wednesday.
Between 1999 and 2000 four prominent opposition figures disappeared without trace. Yuri Zaharanka, a former interior minister, Victor Hanchar, a former Lukashenko aide turned oppositionist, Anatoul Krasouski, an academic and friend of Hanchar, and Dmitry Zavadski, once Lukashenko's personal cameraman. At around the same period Bebenin himself was threatened. In 1997, while he was still working for Imya, he was kidnapped in the center of Minsk and driven to a forest, where unknown men tied him to a tree and threatened to shoot him "if you don't start to write less."
Zaharanka, Hanchar, Krasouski and Zavadski's cases have never been solved, and there is widespread suspicion - to put it mildly - that Lukashenko's secret services are connected to the case. At any rate, they have often hovered like a specter over Lukashenko's reputation on the international stage. Western activists waste no chance to bring up the cases, and they are the subject of periodic resolutions from the Council of Europe, which has demanded investigations into the involvement of several of Lukashenko's ministers, but not the president himself.
Thankfully, the disappearances and mysterious suicides largely - but not completely - stopped. Speaking at an event held by Index on Censorship in London earlier this summer, Sannikov credited international pressure with "stopping the killings." The fear now is that faced with a tough election, the authorities are returning to old habits. "In some sense that's certainly true," said Lev Margolin of the oppositionist Interregional Group of the Congress of Democratic Forces of Belarus. "Most of all it's connected with the upcoming election. There's a very difficult economic situation, poor relations with the EU and Russia, not to mention the United States. And in these conditions:if you can't buy the electorate by raising their salaries and pensions, you at least have to scare the active part into submission."
There had been hints that this could happen. According to the Index on Censorship, which has been monitoring freedom of expression in Belarus for years, six youth activists were subjected to similar kidnappings and mock executions between November and December of 2009. In March of this year Charter 97's offices were raided and their computers confiscated.
To further press the point, death threats began to appear on comment threads on the Charter 97 Web site following reports of Bebenin's death. The Charter 97 site moderator has received text messages containing her personal address, threatening rape, Index has reported. And Svetlana Kalinkina, chief editor of the opposition paper Narodnya Volya, told Russia's Kommersant daily on Monday that she had received obscene threats by E-mail after publishing an article connecting Bebenin's death with an internal struggle in the Belarusian security services. "If you write like that again - you're [expletive] done for," it said. Later she told Radio Free Europe that she received a threat on a postcard of the "Tell the Truth" civil movement, saying: "Live in fear. The hunt for traitors has begun."
For all this, Sannikov says he will not give up on his presidential bid. "Of course we will carry on," he said. "It will be difficult, because Oleg was such an excellent manager, he handled everything, he made everything happen. But we will not give up." The date of the presidential election is expected to be announced after a session of Parliament on September 14.