Belarus offers OSCE access to journalist death probe

MINSK, Sept 9 (Reuters) - Belarus, under international criticism over its treatment of independent media, said on Thursday experts from Europe's biggest democracy and rights body could take part in an investigation into the death of an opposition website director.

Oleg Bebenin, whose prominent website faced frequent pressure from President Alexander Lukashenko's government, was found hanged at his country house outside the capital Minsk last Friday.

Colleagues and opposition politicians have expressed doubt about the preliminary police finding of suicide, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's media freedom chief has called for an independent investigation.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said Belarus would tell the OSCE it is prepared "to invite one or two expert criminologists for the investigation of Oleg Bebenin's death."

Savinykh said the invitation aimed to silence "speculation and insinuations" about the death of Bebenin. "Inviting experts should rule out these insinuations."

The move appeared to fall short of the OSCE's call for a independent probe, and the government did not give details about the extent of access the foreigners would be allowed.

Opposition groups and independent media have faced formidable pressure for years under Lukashenko, who tolerates little dissent in the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people.

Bebenin was a supporter of opposition politician Andrei Sannikov's planned campaign against Lukashenko in elections that are to be held by February.

The United States and Europe have long shunned Lukashenko, accusing him of maintaining power through illegitimate elections and severely restricting individual rights and freedoms.

As relations with energy provider Russia have soured, Lukashenko has intermittently courted the West, but Western officials have said he must do more to advance democracy and human rights first.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Mark Heinrich)


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