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Belarusian activist is found hanged in Ukraine, prompting murder investigation

A closeup of a smiling Vitaly Shishov.
Vitaly Shishov, the leader of a Ukrainian-based organization that helps Belarusians fleeing persecution, was found dead, police said Tuesday.
(Viasna)

A Belarusian activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution was found dead in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, local police said Tuesday.

Vitaly Shishov, leader of the Kyiv-based Belarusian House in Ukraine, was found hanged in one of the city’s parks not far from his home, police said in a statement. An investigation has been launched, with police looking into whether Shishov’s death was suicide or murder made to look like suicide, Igor Klymenko, the head of Ukraine’s National Police, told reporters Tuesday.

The Belarusian House in Ukraine reported Monday that Shishov had gone missing during a morning run. The Belarusian human rights center Viasna cited Shishov’s friends as saying he had recently been followed by strangers during his runs.

The Belarusian House in Ukraine helps fleeing Belarusians with their legal status in Ukraine, accommodation and employment.

In Belarus in recent weeks, authorities have ramped up the pressure against nongovernmental organizations and independent media, conducting more than 200 raids of offices and apartments of activists and journalists in July alone and detaining dozens of people.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed “Europe’s last dictator,” has vowed to continue what he calls a “mopping-up operation” against civil society activists whom he has denounced as “bandits and foreign agents.”

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Lukashenko faced months of protests triggered by his being awarded a sixth term after an August 2020 election that the opposition and the West said was rigged. He responded to demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.

The Belarusian House in Ukraine said in a statement Tuesday that Shishov was forced to move to Ukraine in the fall of 2020, when anti-government protests and the crackdown on demonstrators in Belarus were in full swing.

In Ukraine, he was under surveillance, the Belarusian House in Ukraine said, and “both local sources and our people in Belarus” had alerted the group to the possibility of “various provocations, including kidnapping and liquidation.”

“There is no doubt that this was a planned operation by security operatives to liquidate a Belarusian dangerous for the regime,” the group said. “We will continue to fight for the truth about Vitaly’s death.”

Thrust into the spotlight, Belarus politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says she’s not ‘that important,’ but her country’s fate is.

Yury Shchuchko from the Belarusian House in Ukraine told the Associated Press that Shishov was found with marks of a beating on his face. “Nothing was stolen,” Shchuchko said. “He was in regular clothes people put on to work out, and he only had his phone with him.”

He also said Shishov had previously noticed surveillance during his runs and that strangers would approach him and try to start a conversation.

“We have been warned to be more careful, because a network of Belarus KGB agents is operating herej and everything is possible,” Shchuchko said. “Vitaly asked me to take care of his loved ones. He had a weird feeling.”

Klymenko of the National Police told reporters there were indeed injuries on Shishov’s body: scratched skin on his nose, a cut on his lip and an injury to his left knee. Klymenko would not say, however, whether these resulted from violence. Klymenko added that police had not received any complaints about surveillance from Shishov.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main challenger in the August 2020 election, who left for Lithuania under pressure from the authorities, expressed condolences to Shishov’s family Tuesday.

“Belarusians can’t be safe even abroad, as long as there are those who are trying to inflict revenge on them,” Tsikhnaouskaya said in an online statement.

“Vitaly Shishov was helping Belarusians and was found hanged,” she said. “It happened on another country’s soil. Just like the hostage-taking took place on another country’s plane. Just like the attempt to forcefully bring a disloyal athlete back to Belarus from another country’s territory.”

Earlier this week, Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya accused the country’s officials of hustling her to the airport and trying to put her on a plane back to Belarus after she publicly criticized the management of her team at the Tokyo Games. Tsimanouskaya refused to board the plane and instead planned to seek refuge in another European country.

Lithuania has ordered its border guards to turn away, with force if needed, migrants attempting to enter from neighboring Belarus.

In an interview Tuesday, Tsimanouskaya told the Associated Press that she feared she wouldn’t be safe in Belarus.

European officials Tuesday urged Ukraine to conduct a thorough investigation into Shishov’s death.

“We are deeply shocked by the news of the death of the Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov,” Austria’s Foreign Ministry said on Twitter. “Our thoughts are with his loved ones. Austria calls for a thorough and transparent investigation into the circumstances leading to his death.”

Marta Hurtado, a spokeswoman for the United Nations’ human rights office, told reporters in Geneva that the office hoped the authorities in Ukraine would conduct “a thorough, impartial and effective investigation on what happened and see if it was just a suicide, if it was a regular criminal murder or if there is a relation with his activism.”


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