A Belarusian exile who helped people flee the regime was found dead in Kyiv yesterday, sparking fears of an assassination by Belarus on foreign soil.
Vitaly Shishov was found hanged in the woods near his home, Ukrainian police said, adding that his mobile phone and all his personal belongings were still on him.
Police have opened a murder investigation. The activists’ associates say they have “no doubt” that he was killed by the Belarusian regime.
Yuri Shchuchko, a friend and associate of Mr Shishov, was searching the woods on the western outskirts of Kyiv around 7am when a friend called him from another side of the park, saying he had found the body.
“I saw a silhouette of a person hanged on a horizontal bar. I recognised Vitaly’s jacket,” Mr Shchuchko said. “I came closer and I identified him.”
Mr Shchuchko said he heard a police officer say: “His nose is broken. Something went wrong.”
Mr Shchuchko did not verify this for himself. Ihor Klymenko, head of the Ukrainian National Police, did not confirm reports of a broken nose but said that there were scratches on the man’s nose, left knee and other body parts “consistent with a fall”.
Mr Klymenko said that Ukrainian police would only be able to draw preliminary conclusions after they ran a series of forensic tests and study CCTV footage.
If proven to be murder, Mr Shishov’s death would mark the first time the Belarusian regime has taken its war against dissidents to foreign soil, in an escalation more reminiscent of the Kremlin’s campaign of targeting its critics abroad.
The activist was found at a sports ground about 200 metres away from the path that he used for his morning run.
Two associates of Mr Shishov, described as a cheerful and caring man, always willing to compromise, said he did not display any suicidal behaviour.
Mr Shishov was the head of the Belarusian House in Kyiv, an NGO that has provided help to thousands of Belarusians who fled the regime of Alexander Lukashenko to Ukraine.
Mr Shchuchko said their NGO was pressing for police protection for Mr Shishov’s girlfriend, who might be in danger.
“We have no doubt that this was a pre-planned intelligence operation to get rid of a Belarusian who was a threat to the regime,” said the Belarusian House, which raised the alarm when Mr Shishov did not return from his run on Monday.
The NGO said Mr Shishov had been followed in Kyiv.
Mr Shishov fled Belarus last autumn, fearing for his safety after taking part in anti-government protests in his home town of Homel.
The Belarusian House organised anti-Lukashenko rallies and helped Belarusians to find work and accommodation.
With border crossings severely restricted by the pandemic, Ukraine last year emerged as a safe haven for Belarusians looking to flee the country.
Many Belarusians chose the country over Russia after Vladimir Putin sided with Mr Lukashenko and Russian law enforcement agencies arrested and deported several Belarusian activists.
“Our local sources as well as people in Belarus have warned us about possible provocations including kidnapping and killing,” the NGO said.
“Vitaly treated those warnings with stoicism humour, saying that maybe then the Belarusian House in Ukraine will get some publicity.”
Meanwhile, Lithuania has started turning away refugees in what has been described as a migrant crisis orchestrated by the Belarusian dictator.
More than 4,026 asylum seekers have illegally gained entry to the country from Belarus this year – compared to 81 in 2020.
Agne Bilotaite, Lithuania’s head of emergency state operations, said refugees were free to apply for asylum at the border but illegal crossings would not be tolerated. Since Monday, 180 assylum seekers have been turned away.