Belarusian activist Vitaly Shishov is found dead in Ukraine park


MOSCOW – Belarusian anti-government activist found dead in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on Tuesday, in what police described as murder or suicide, shining the spotlight on the risks faced by opponents of Belarusian leader Alexander G. Lukashenko even outside their own country.

Activist Vitaly Shishov, 26, disappeared on Monday after going out for his morning jog, said his colleagues, who accused Belarusian authorities of having killed him. Kyiv police said Mr. Shishov was found hanged in a park near his home and that they were investigating the possibility that the death was “murder disguised as suicide”.

“The full picture of events will be confirmed after questioning of witnesses, analysis of video recordings” and other stages of the investigation, police said.

Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, who has been in power since 1994, has long suppressed dissent in his country and jailed thousands after large-scale protests against his regime last year. Now, the events of the past few weeks suggest that he is also stepping up his campaign against the growing number of Belarusian exiles abroad.

In May, Lukashenko forced the landing of an airliner with an exiled Belarusian activist on board and arrested him. A Belarusian Olympic sprinter asked for protection at an airport in Tokyo on Sunday as her country tried to force her home after the Summer Games. She said she feared for her safety after criticizing her coaches and the country’s National Olympic Committee.

Mr Shishov was the director of the Belarusian House in Ukraine, an organization that helped those trying to escape repression in Belarus after the anti-government protests in the summer and last fall.

Credit…Viasna Human Rights Center, via Associated Press

While the circumstances surrounding Mr. Shishov’s death remained murky, critics of Mr. Lukashenko quickly pointed the finger at his authoritarian regime.

“It is worrying that those fleeing Belarus still cannot be safe,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian pro-democracy opposition leader who fled the country last year after claiming victory in a presidential election , said on twitter.

Mr. Shishov disappeared after jogging at 9 a.m. near his home in Kiev on Monday, colleagues from Belarusian House said in a statement. Since he fled to Ukraine last fall, according to the statement, he has organized aid for other exiles, organized protests against Lukashenko and called on Ukrainian authorities to support the Belarusian diaspora.

“The death takes place amid an unacceptable Belarusian crackdown on civil society”, the United States Embassy in Kiev said on Twitter. “We look forward to a full and thorough investigation by Ukrainian authorities to establish its causes and circumstances. “

Last week, according to his Facebook posts, Mr. Shishov helped organize a rally in Kiev marking the 31st anniversary of Belarus’s independence from the Soviet Union.

His colleagues said he believed he was being followed and that supporters in Belarus had warned him of potential threats to his life. He jokingly replied that if anything happened to him, it could help his organization get the much-needed attention.

“Vitaly faced these warnings with stoicism and humor,” the organization said. “There is no doubt that this was an operation organized by a spy to liquidate a Belarusian who was really a danger to the regime.”

Ukraine’s national police chief Ihor Klymenko said authorities had not been informed by Mr Shishov that he was being followed. Mr Klymenko told reporters that Mr Shishov was found dead with minor injuries to his nose, left knee and chest.

“Experts said all of this was characteristic of a one-time fall,” Klymenko said, according to Ukrainian news agency Ukrinform.

Mr. Shishov, from the Belarusian region of Gomel near the Ukrainian-Russian border, arrived in Kiev after participating in anti-government rallies, his colleagues said. Last year’s protests erupted after Mr Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in a presidential election that was widely seen as fraudulent.

For many exiles, Ukraine, which has a visa waiver policy for Belarusians, is a transit point to European Union countries like Poland and Lithuania. But Mr. Shishov decided to stay and became a member of the growing community of Belarusian activists in Kiev. He participated in solidarity rallies in the central Independence Square in Kiev and tried to help other newcomers find work and accommodation.

“He was a calm and balanced person,” said Alena Talstaya, leader of Razam, another Belarusian opposition group in Kiev. “He said his main sphere of activity was to help refugees.

The flow of Belarusian exiles to Ukraine has increased in recent weeks, said Talstaya, amid a new wave of raids and arrests directed against journalists and rights activists. Lukashenko said last month that his security services were mounting a “cleanup operation” against the West-backed “bandits and foreign agents”, with the intention of overthrowing him.

As a result, hostels, hotels and guest rooms in Ukraine filled with Belarusians fleeing possible arrest, Ms. Talstaya said. Even abroad, however, Belarusians are not completely safe.

“Hiding is impossible and unnecessary,” said Ms. Talstaya. “No one can live in constant fear. “

Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow and Megan Specia from London. Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow.

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