CPJ calls for independent probe of Aleh Byabenin’s death

New York, December 3, 2010–The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned that Belarusian prosecutors have closed their investigation into the September death of Aleh Byabenin, founder and director of the Minsk-based, pro-opposition news website Charter 97. Authorities said Wednesday that they did not find evidence of foul play.

Byabenin’s brother found the journalist hanged in a stairway of his summer house outside the capital on September 3, Natalya Radina, editor of Charter 97, told CPJ at the time. A day earlier, Byabenin had made plans with friends to go to the movies, but failed to show up at the theater, Radina said. After friends tried to call him, they received a text message from his phone that said he was driving to his summer house and would not respond to calls. He had also made plans for September 3, to watch a soccer game with friends, and September 4, to go fishing, according to the news website Naviny. Byabenin left no suicide note.

“We call for a renewed and independent investigation into the death of our colleague Aleh Byabenin,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “There are too many unanswered questions and omissions of evidence in the official probe. The government must allow outside experts to conduct the inquiry.”

In an official autopsy report released to his family on September 4, authorities said Byabenin, 36, had committed suicide. But the journalist’s colleagues and friends immediately disputed that account. Byabenin had no apparent motive to kill himself, his colleagues told CPJ. He was in excellent health, had no debts, and had just returned from an overseas family vacation. Dmitry Bandarenko, a friend who saw Byabenin’s body, told CPJ that the journalist’s right ankle was badly wrenched and that he had bruises on his left hand, chest, and back. The official autopsy report did not include those details, Charter97 reported.

Under public pressure, prosecutors announced in mid-September that they would reopen the investigation.

Many of Byabenin’s colleagues published stories questioning the suicide finding, which prompted a series of anonymous death threats. Svetlana Kalinkina, editor of the opposition daily Narodnaya Volya and a 2004 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, received an anonymous letter on September 6 that said: “A hunt for traitors has started. One more article and we will finish you.”

Three days after publishing a blog entry in which he detailed inconsistencies in the official probe, freelancer Nikolai Khalezin started receiving death threats. “You could disappear one night,” one person posted to his blog. “Or, sometimes, trucks’ brakes don’t work so well.” Radina of Charter 97 received a series of threats in comments posted on the website. One, posted on September 13, said: “A noose for Radina.”

All of the threats have gone uninvestigated, journalists said.

On November 23, the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) announced that two unnamed experts had concluded that Byabenin’s death was indeed a suicide. The OSCE said the experts were deployed after the organization received an invitation from Belarusian officials. The OSCE emphasized that the experts had not been given a mandate to conduct their own investigation from scratch; they simply reviewed materials compiled during the official Belarusian probe. Byabenin’s body was not exhumed.

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, confiscation of equipment, and debilitating cyber attacks.

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.