Head of group for exiled Belarusians found hanged in Ukraine

This undated photo provided by Belarusian Human Rights Center "Viasna," shows Vitaly Shishov, leader of the Kyiv-based Belarusian House in Ukraine. (Human Rights Center Viasna via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A Belarusian activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution was found dead in the Ukrainian capital, 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.

A probe has been launched, with police investigating whether it was a suicide or a murder made to look like suicide, head of Ukraine’s National Police Igor Klymenko told reporters on Tuesday.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is keeping a close eye on the case, according to his spokesman, Serhiy Nykyforov, while Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba promised on Twitter that “Ukraine will do everything possible to fully investigate the case.”

“It is of utmost importance for us to reveal the truth about his tragic death,” Kuleba said.

Shishov’s Belarusian girlfriend, Bazhena Zholudz, told The Associated Press that she doesn’t believe that he could have killed himself.

“I don’t believe in suicide, nothing in Vitaly’s conduct signaled his intention to kill himself,” she said. “He didn’t leave any note or message. We were together that morning and he just went out for a jog.”

Zholudz added that Shishov had recently noted that he was being shadowed. “He recently noted vehicles and people who were following him,” she said.

The Belarusian House in Ukraine, which helps Belarusians fleeing persecution with their legal status in Ukraine, accommodation and employment, also said that Shisov was recently being followed by strangers.

It noted that “both local sources and our people in Belarus” have 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. We will continue to fight for the truth about Vitaly’s death,” the group said.

About 300 people rallied Tuesday outside the Belarusian Embassy in Kyiv, many holding his portrait.

Belarus was rocked by months of protests, which were triggered by President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged. He responded to demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police

Lukashenko has vowed to continue what he called a “mopping-up operation” against civil society activists whom he has denounced as “bandits and foreign agents,” and authorities conducted hundreds of raids in recent weeks to target the independent media and non-government organizations.

Belarus’ authoritarian government has at times gone to extremes in its crackdown on dissent, including recently diverting a plane to the capital of Minsk and arresting a dissident aboard.

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

He also said that Shishov has 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 here and everything is possible,” Shchuchko said. “Vitaly asked me to take care of his loved ones, he had a weird feeling.”

Klymenko of the Ukrainian national police told reporters on Tuesday that there were indeed injuries discovered on Shishov’s body — scratched skin on his nose, a cut on his lip and an injury on his left knee. He wouldn’t say, however, whether these resulted from violence. Klymenko added that police haven’t received any complaints about surveillance from Shishov.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate in the August 2020 election who left for Lithuania under pressure from the authorities, expressed condolences to Shishov’s family on 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 ... 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,” she said.

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 will seek refuge in Europe.

In an interview Tuesday, she told the AP she feared she wouldn’t be safe in Belarus.

International officials on Tuesday urged Ukraine to conduct a thorough investigation into the death of the activist.

“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.”

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “We’re, obviously, glad to see that this is being investigated. I think his death needs to be investigated fully to elaborate all of these circumstances. And we, of course, send our condolences to his family and friends.”

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said on Twitter that Shishov’s death “takes place amid an unacceptable Belarusian crack down on civil society, and we look forward to a complete and thorough investigation by Ukrainian authorities to establish its causes and circumstances.”