A Belarusian activist in exile in Ukraine was discovered hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv early Tuesday, prompting Ukrainian police to launch a murder investigation.
Vitaly Shishov, the leader of a Kyiv-based organisation that assists Belarusians fleeing persecution, went missing on Monday after failing to return home from a run.
According to police, they are investigating the possibility of suicide or a murder staged to appear as suicide. Shishov was discovered with abrasions on his nose and knee, but it was too soon to tell whether he had been attacked, Ukraine’s national police chief, Ihor Klymenko, told a briefing.
Shishov, 26, had felt under constant surveillance since leaving Belarus last year after participating in anti-government protests, according to his colleagues. He’d been warned about potential threats, such as being kidnapped or killed.
During President Alexander Lukashenko’s security crackdown following a disputed election last year, Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania have become safe havens for Belarusians. Tens of thousands of people have been detained, and key opposition figures are either imprisoned or living in exile.
“It is worrying that those who flee Belarus still can’t be safe,” exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on Twitter ahead of a meeting in London with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. She said the death could be a crime.
Speaking to Reuters on Tuesday, she said a non-violent transition to democracy from Lukashenko’s “hell” was possible in the former Soviet republic. “When we put enough pressure on the regime there will be no other way out.”
The death of Shishov was reported by Belarus’ official news agency Belta, but the Minsk authorities made no further comment. The spokesperson for Lukashenko could not be reached.
Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist, was detained by Belarusian security forces in May after his flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Minsk. After refusing her team’s orders to fly home from the Olympics, a Belarussian athlete sought refuge in Poland’s embassy in Tokyo this week.
The US will closely monitor the Ukrainian authorities’ investigation into Shishov’s death, according to US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Tuesday.
“We condemn in the strongest terms the ongoing violent crackdown on Belarusian civil society and transnational repression by the Lukashenko regime,” Price told reporters.
SOUNDING THE ALARM
Shishov led the Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU) group, which helps Belarusians find accommodation, jobs and legal advice. Neighbouring Ukraine has become a haven for Belarusians fleeing Lukashenko’s crackdown.
“We were also repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations, including kidnapping and liquidation,” a BDU statement said. “Vitaly treated these warnings stoically and with humour.”
Ihor, 24, a fellow Belarusian exile who had known Shishov since last October, told Reuters Shishov knew he was under surveillance, recounting instances of his car being followed or his girlfriend being approached by strangers while they were staging protests in Kyiv.
“Lukashenko’s regime is at war, and he is at war. He is at war with anyone who can offer any resistance,” said Ihor, who gave only his first name.
Shishov had not informed the police of his suspicion of being watched, according to Ukrainian police chief Klymenko, and the police were not aware of any foreign agents tracking him.
Shishov’s organisation had reported him missing the day before. Shishov had left his home at 9 a.m. (0600 GMT) and was due to return an hour later.
Belarusian authorities have labelled anti-government protesters as criminals or violent revolutionaries supported by the West, while describing their own law enforcement agencies’ actions as appropriate and necessary.
“The death takes place amid an unacceptable Belarusian crackdown on civil society, and we look forward to a complete and thorough investigation by Ukrainian authorities to establish its causes and circumstances,” the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said.