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Journalist found dead in Belarus; CPJ calls for investigation

A memorial for Byabenin. (AP)
New York, September 8, 2010--Belarusian authorities must thoroughly investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Aleh Byabenin, founder and director of the Minsk-based pro-opposition news website Charter 97, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Byabenin's brother and several friends found the journalist hanging from a stairway in his summer house outside the capital city of Minsk on Friday at around 5 p.m., Natalya Radina, editor of Charter 97, told CPJ. Byabenin had made plans with friends Thursday afternoon to go to the movies the same evening, but failed to show up at the theater, Radina said. 

After friends tried to call him a few times, they received a text message from Byabenin's phone that said he was driving to his summer house and could not respond to calls.

In an official autopsy report released to his family Saturday, authorities said Byabenin, 36, committed suicide by hanging. He left no suicide note. After colleagues and friends insisted suicide should be ruled out, Minsk prosecutors announced Tuesday they were probing other motives for the journalist's death, Charter 97 reported. A criminal case was reportedly opened.

Charter97 often reports on government wrongdoing, including human rights abuses, corruption in the security services, and opposition activities. The website has had frequent brushes with authorities, including interrogations of staff members as retaliation for their critical reporting on authorities, confiscation of equipment during politicized audits, and debilitating cyber attacks.

"We call on Minsk police and prosecutors to carry out a thorough investigation into the death of Aleh Byabenin," CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. "Both the circumstances of Byabenin's death and the fact that his website carried criticism of the authorities warrant further investigation." 

Byabenin had no apparent motive to kill himself, his colleagues told CPJ. He had just returned from an overseas family vacation and appeared healthy and energized to work on his website.

Political activist and friend Dmitry Bandarenko, who saw Byabenin's body on Friday, told CPJ that the journalist's right ankle was injured and that he had bruises on his left hand, chest, and back.

Presidential elections in Belarus are due in early 2011. Bandarenko told CPJ that Byabenin had recently agreed to become involved with the pending election campaign of opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov.

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