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Mourners question death of Belarus journalist at funeral

Oleg Bebenin's friends and colleagues mourned his passing at Monday's funeral and said they couldn't believe that the 36-year-old journalist and family man killed himself. Bebenin was an outspoken government critic.

A undated handout photograph made available on 04 September 2010 showing Belorussian riot police detain Oleg Bebenin in Minsk, Belarus.

Bebenin's outspoken views often landed him in trouble

The funeral for leading Belarus opposition journalist Oleg Bebenin took place in silence, without speeches, on Monday, according to the family's wishes.

The founder of the opposition website charter97.org, operating in a tightly controlled media landscape, was found hanged at his weekend home outside of the capital Minsk on Friday.

"Suicide is the primary lead on the cause of death," a spokesman for the general prosecutor's office said. "But prosecutors will work on those other leads which are usually explored after a body is found in a noose."

However, friends and colleagues of the 36-year-old don't believe that Bebenin would have committed suicide, pointing out that he was in contact with friends and planning cinema trips via text message on the day of his death.

"His family and I cannot see why he would decide to kill himself," journalist and close friend Irina Khalip told the AFP news agency. "He loved his five-year-old son very much."

Opposition politician Oleg Sannikov, who plans to run as a presidential candidate against hardline incumbent of 16 years Alexander Lukashenko in forthcoming elections, also didn't believe that Bebenin would have taken his own life.

"I do not believe in the version of suicide and will tell this to the prosecutors," Sannikov said of Bebenin, who had been acting as a spokesman for the politician. "Oleg was a good, reliable and talented person. He had many plans."

International concern

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus' hardline president has virtually stifled the free press

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Parliament have called for an independent investigation into Bebenin's death.

"This is particularly important to avoid exacerbating the chilling effect on Belorussian media that questions over his death would have," the OSCE's media freedom representative, Dunja Mijatovic said in a statement praising Bebenin's charter97 website as "one of a few non-governmental sources of information" in Belarus.

Television and most print media in the ex-Soviet nation are state-controlled, and many independent newspapers have been ordered to shut down, sometimes continuing their operations on the Internet.

According to the AP news agency, the editor of a remaining opposition newspaper who questioned the circumstances of Bebenin's death has since received death threats herself.

Svetlana Kalinkina, who edits the Narodnaya Volya paper, said she received an email with death threats after suggesting Bebenin might have been killed.

Three journalists have been killed or have gone missing since authoritarian President Lukashenko came to power in 1994, and the leader has been linked to the disappearances or deaths of several political opponents. Bebenko had published information concerning these issues on his website.

Political ally Oleg Sannikov pointed out on Russian television that Bebenko had been kidnapped in 1997 and had been beaten up and threatened in recent years.

Author: Mark Hallam (AFP/AP)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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