Activist Who Helped People Flee ‘Europe's Last Dictator’ Found Hanged in Park

Police said they would investigate whether Vitaly Shishov had been murdered, as Belarus opposition figures warned that the regime of Alexander Lukashenko was becoming more brazen in its crackdown on dissent.
August 3, 2021, 3:04pm
Activist Who Helped People Flee Belarus Found Dead in Ukraine Park
Vitaly Shishov. Photo: Viasna

Ukrainian police have launched an investigation into whether an exiled Belarusian activist found hanged in a Kyiv park on Tuesday was murdered.

Vitaly Shishov was the 26-year-old head of Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU), a Kyiv-based group that supported Belarusians who had fled to Ukraine to escape persecution in their homeland, where authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko has been waging a sweeping crackdown on dissent.

His death has raised concerns internationally about the growing brazenness and reach of Lukashenko’s campaign against dissidents. It comes just a day after an Olympic sprinter who had criticised her coaches sought asylum following an attempt by officials to forcibly fly her home from Tokyo, and months after a Ryanair flight flying dissident journalist Roman Protasevich from Greece to Lithuania was diverted and forced to land in Belarus, under the flimsy pretext of a fake bomb threat.

"It adds another level to our concerns about what is happening in Belarus," said Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the UN human rights office.

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Shishov had been reported missing by his partner after failing to return from a run on Monday morning.

Announcing that his body had been found hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv, Ukrainian police said they were investigating whether he had been killed, or died by suicide, and would explore all leads including murder disguised as a suicide.

Shishov’s body had abrasions on his nose and knee, Ukraine's national police chief Ihor Klymenko told a briefing, but it was too early to say whether he had been attacked, Reuters reported.

But Belarus opposition figures, including Shishov’s colleagues at BDU, accused the Lukashenko regime of being behind his death.

"There is no doubt that this is an operation planned by Chekists to liquidate a Belarusian who presented a true danger to the regime," the NGO said in a statement, using a term for Belarusian secret service agents.

BDU, which helps newly arrived Belarusians find housing, work and legal support in Ukraine, had received repeated warnings “by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations, including kidnapping and liquidation."

"Vitaly treated these warnings stoically and with humour."

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanousaya also blamed the Lukashenko regime, tweeting that it was “worrying that those who flee Belarus still can't be safe” before telling reporters in London – following a meeting with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson – that his death was a “crime” and that she too could “disappear at any moment.” 

Belarus expert Eleanor Bindman, a senior lecturer in politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, told VICE World News that Shishov’s death – on the heels of the Tokyo and RyanAir incidents – would further unnerve Belarusian exiles, heightening fears that even on foreign soil, they weren’t beyond the reach of Lukashenko’s goons. Ukraine, like Poland and Lithuania, which also border Belarus, has become a major destination for the wave of Belarusians fleeing Lukashenko’s crackdown.

She said if Lukashenko’s regime was behind the killing, “it would be a huge escalation, but it wouldn’t be inconsistent with what’s gone before.”

“It will further cement his status as a pariah in Europe if his government is doing these kinds of actions on foreign soil.”