Suspicions surround Lithuanian diplomat's death in Belarus

  • 2006-08-30
  • From wire reports

UNDER CONTROL: Valantinas has assured the public that, for now, it is not crucial to recall diplomats from Belarus.

VILNIUS - The mysterious death of a Lithuanian diplomat in Belarus has sparked enormous controversy and strain in bilateral relations. Official reports from Belarus claim that security officer Vytautas Pociunas died after falling out of a hotel window, while unofficial reports in Lithuania claim the diplomat may have been stabbed or poisoned. Lithuania's politicians and prosecutors have described the ongoing investigation as "a quest of honor" and given it highest priority.

Pociunas, an adviser to the Lithuanian consulate general in Grodno, died while on a business trip to Brest in the early hours of Aug. 23. The diplomat's body was discovered next to the Hotel Inturist. The 48-year-old was believed to have fallen out of a ninth-story window.

Yet Lithuanian politicians are not ruling out the possibility of murder, suggesting that the officer might have fallen victim to Belarusian special services.
An investigation by the Lithuanian Prosecutor General's Office was launched immediately. The diplomat's body, however, was returned to Lithuania on Aug. 25.
The State Security Department has also launched a probe into the circumstances in Brest, which is headed and organized by the Prosecutor General's Office.

"This is an important case, and I am keeping an eye on the performance of our prosecutors and other services. Completion of the case and having all answers is a matter of our country's good name," Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas told journalists after meeting with Prosecutor General Algimantas Valantinas on Aug. 25.
But speculation surrounding the diplomat's death has spread like wildfire.

An editorial column in Lietuvos Rytas noted that "if we reject the version of an accident, which is very unlikely, Pociunas' death is a bloody challenge to our country. The state, just like every honest citizen, will not be able to feel safe until it is clear whom we have been challenged by."
The daily noted that diplomats from EU countries, which Minsk sees as adversarial, have increasingly become victims of attacks in Belarus. Latvia, Lithuania and Poland actively participate in the formulation and implementation of EU policy towards Minsk, where it is "decried as an imperialist plot aimed at removing Alexander Lukashenko's administration," the paper opined.
"Thus the mysterious fall of Pociunas, a highly professional employee of the State Security Department, from the ninth floor of Hotel Inturist seems to be another part of the same chain," the editorial went on.

The newspaper reminded that a Polish consular officer had been found beaten in his apartment in Grodno earlier this year. The diplomat later died. An investigation did not follow.
The incident follows a scandal involving a Latvian diplomat earlier this summer, when Belarus investigators entered and searched Janis Smits' Minsk apartment in violation of diplomatic laws. Belarus' interior minister subsequently accused Smits of distributing pornographic materials.

Latvia responded to the incident by expelling a Belarusian diplomat.
In Lithuania, Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas said that Vilnius was not considering a recall of its diplomats from Belarus. "We have no presumptions for such a move, and are not considering the possibility," Vaitiekunas told the Baltic News Service on Aug. 25.
Asked whether security was at least stepped up at Lithuanian diplomatic missions following the incident, an anonymous Foreign Ministry official replied, "security is ensured."

On the Belarusian side, the governmental news agency BELTA reported that forensics experts detected 1.9 promils of alcohol in Pociunas' blood. BELTA said the results were determined based on a blood test.
However, Valantinas said he had not received an official report from Belarusian authorities about the test results.
"We have not received such information. I only heard this from the media," said Valantinas.
After meeting with Kirkilas on Aug. 25, Valantinas refused to comment on blood test results by Lithuanian experts, saying the medical conclusions had not yet been received.

"A forensic examination has been conducted, and we will try searching for answers to the same questions as did the Belarusian authorities," he said.
Justas Laucius, the Lithuanian prosecutor in charge of organized crime and corruption, has not yet returned from his investigation in Belarus.
Lietuvos Rytas emphasized the importance of solving the death, explaining the circumstances to the public as thoroughly as possible without disclosing state secrets.

"Efforts to suppress society's desire to know the truth based on the argument of protecting state secrets will fail this time. The people of Lithuania must know what the officer, who had faithfully served the country, fell victim to," the daily reports on Aug. 25.