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BAJ member and leading rights activist found dead

Prominent journalist Aleh Byabenin found dead in his home.
Prominent journalist Aleh Byabenin found dead in his home.

BAJ

Belarusian journalist and human rights activist Aleh Byabenin was found hanged in his country house outside of Minsk on 3 September. Police claim it was a suicide but colleagues say it was a politically motivated killing, just months before elections take place in 2011, report the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), Index on Censorship, ARTICLE 19, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The government has carried out numerous orchestrated attacks on journalists throughout 2010.

Critical journalists have been harassed with criminal defamation suits, interrogated by authorities, their homes raided and equipment confiscated, physically assaulted, while independent newspapers have been threatened with suspension. Criminal investigations have been launched against journalists who have written about the illegal activities of high-ranking officials. Previous elections in 2001 and 2006 also saw a brutal crackdown on the media and political opposition.

Byabenin, 36, was the founder and director of the Minsk-based pro-opposition news website Charter 97. The leading non-state source of news and analysis in Europe's last dictatorship, Charter 97 often reports on government wrongdoing, human rights abuses, corruption in the security services and opposition activities.

The site has faced constant intimidation, including interrogations of staff members as retaliation for their critical reporting on authorities, confiscation of equipment and cyber attacks. Its journalists are often targeted. Byabenin was kidnapped in 1997 and in 1999 he was nearly beaten to death by far-right thugs with links to the KGB.

Charter 97 is a very influential opposition site, says BAJ, and Byabenin had just joined the campaign team of Andrei Sannikov, a candidate in the next election running against President Alexander Lukashenko. Natalia Radina, the editor of Charter 97, says pressure on Charter 97 has increased in recent months and that Byabenin was killed for political reasons.

"In anticipation of the announcement of the presidential elections we fear the death of Aleh Byabenin is a signal for a new stage of severe governmental repression against the independent media in Belarus," said ARTICLE 19.

A day after writing about Byabenin's death, independent journalist Sviatlana Kalinkina received a death-threat postcard, warning her not to write any more articles: "Live in fear. The hunt after traitors has started." Kalinkina said, "This is not an attempt to intimidate me personally, but activities aimed to create an atmosphere of tension and fear both in the journalistic community and society as a whole."

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