A Belarusian activist who ran a group in Ukraine helping Belarusians fleeing persecution has been found dead in the Ukrainian capital, local police said.
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 murder investigation has been launched, with a focus on the death apparently being made to look like suicide, the statement read.
The Belarusian House in Ukraine reported on Monday that Mr Shishov had gone missing during a morning run.
Viasna, the Belarusian human rights centre, cited Mr Shishov’s friends as saying that he has recently been followed by strangers during his runs.
The Belarusian House in Ukraine helps Belarusians fleeing persecution with their legal status in Ukraine, accommodation and employment.
In Belarus in recent weeks, authorities have ramped up the pressure against non-governmental organisations and independent media, conducting more than 200 raids of offices and apartments of activists and journalists in July alone, and detaining dozens of people.
Authoritarian president Alexander 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”.
Mr Lukashenko faced months of protests triggered by his being awarded 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.
The Belarusian House in Ukraine said in a statement that Mr Shishov was forced to move to Ukraine in the autumn of 2020, when anti-government protests and crackdown on demonstrators in Belarus were in full swing.
In Ukraine, he was under surveillance, and “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.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Mr Lukashenko’s main challenger in the 2020 election who left for Lithuania under pressure from the authorities, expressed condolences to Mr 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,” she 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.”
Yury Shchuchko, from the Belarusian House in Ukraine, told the Associated Press that Mr 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,” Mr Shchuchko said.
He also said that Mr 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,” Mr Shchuchko said.
“Vitaly asked me to take care of his loved ones, he had a weird feeling.”