Vitaly Shishov: Head of Belarus exiles group found dead in Ukraine as Olympian defects

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, in London, said she was ‘devastated’ by news of the death

William Nattrass,Adam Forrest
Tuesday 03 August 2021 18:27
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<p>Vitaly Shishov had previously reported being followed by strangers while out jogging</p>

Vitaly Shishov had previously reported being followed by strangers while out jogging

The head of a Ukraine-based NGO helping Belarusians fleeing persecution has been found hanged in a park in Kyiv.

Vitaly Shishov’s body was found near his home in the Ukrainian capital, a day after he was reported missing by his partner after not returning home from a run.

Police have opened an investigation ino the case, saying his mobile phone and other personal belongings were missing at the scene of the crime. They are treating the incident as suspicious – possibly a murder dressed up as a suicide.

On Tuesday evening, police said they had recovered Mr Shishov’s phone, a potential source of evidence.

Mr Shishov ran the Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU), an organisation helping those who have fled Minsk find accommodation, work and legal advice in Kyiv.

The organisation mounted a search for him when he went missing on Monday, already fearing the worst after Mr Shishov had previously reported being followed by strangers while out jogging. BDU said security cameras showed Mr Shishov leaving his home at 9am, and that he would normally have returned an hour later.

“We scoured the neighbourhood where he used to run – but we could not find any traces of him,” BDU wrote on Monday.

“There is no doubt that this was an operation planned by Chekists [state-security operatives] to liquidate a Belarusian who presented a true danger to the regime,” it continued.

The NGO also confirmed that it had been the recipient of repeated warnings about “provocations, including kidnapping and liquidation”.

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was in London to meet the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday, tweeted her condolences.

“Devastated by the news of the death of the Belarusian activist Vital Shyshou who was found hanged in Kyiv. My heart is with his family. It is worrying that those who flee Belarus still can’t be safe,” she wrote.

A spokesman for the People’s Embassy of Belarus in UK, the campaign organisation behind the opposition leader’s meetings with diaspora groups in London, said the group suspected Mr Shishov had been murdered.

“We suspect that, but we have to wait for the police to investigate. You have a young man, out jogging, who is now dead. So it is certainly suspicious,” said the spokesman.

“It’s not a complete shock. Several people who protested against Lukashenko have been disappeared. So nothing is shocking.”

Belarusian journalist Tadeusz Gizcan meanwhile said Mr Shishov had been forced to flee Belarus last year after taking part in protests in Gomel, a city in the southeast of the country.

Ukrainian police appealed to everyone who knew Mr Shishov to come forward to provide information about his recent activity, psychological and emotional state, and possible dangers.

“The full picture of events will be established after witness hearings, analysis of CCTV footage, research and investigation,” the police said in a statement.

A colleague of Mr Shishov, Yuri Shchuchko, told local media that the victim was found with marks on his face, suggesting he had been beaten up.

And he said the BDU had previously been warned by Ukrainian police and security services about threats to activists.

“They said we should watch ourselves because a Belarusian KGB network was active here and anything was possible,” said Mr Shchuchko.

Ukraine is a major destination for people fleeing the repressive regime of president Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, as are other neighbouring countries such as Poland and Lithuania.

Mr Lukashenko’s regime treats critics at home and abroad as criminals and revolutionaries backed by the West – an approach which stepped up in intensity following elections in 2020 widely held to have been fraudulent.

Earlier this year, Poland-based journalist Roman Protasevich was abducted while on a flight from Greece to Lithuania.

And at home, political opponents have been jailed on charges which they claim were fabricated by the regime.

A view of the site where Vitaly Shishov was found dead in a Kyiv park

Mr Shishov’s death coincides with the international scandal caused by Belarus’s treatment of sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who was offered asylum by Poland after defying team officials who tried to force her to return home following criticism of the national team’s preparations.

Her husband, Arseniy Zdanevich, fled to Ukraine on the same day, saying that despite just being “normal sports people”, the pair were at risk of political persecution in their home country.

Speaking to reporters from Ukraine, Zdanevich denied claims made by the Belarusian authorities about his wife’s mental health and confirmed that the couple have no links to the Belarusian opposition movement.

He added that they would both return to Belarus if they could be confident of not facing criminal charges in the country.

With the events concerning Ms Tsimanouskaya and her husband coinciding so closely with the death of Mr Shishov, there had been speculation that the incidents may have been linked.

Yet The Independent spoke to a representative - who did not wish to be named - of a Ukraine-based Belarusian human rights organisation helping people flee the country, who said that their organisation was in fact involved in helping Mr Zdanevich leave Belarus. The representative confirmed that the organisation does not cooperate with the BDU.

As such, the representative said it is unlikely that Mr Shishov’s death is linked to the Tsimanouskaya affair.

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