A Belarusian activist has been found dead in a park near his home in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, a day after he was reported missing, police said.
Vitaly Shishov, who led a Kyiv-based organisation that helps Belarusians fleeing persecution, had been reported missing by his partner on Monday after not returning home from a run. He could not be reached on his mobile phone.
“Belarusian citizen Vitaly Shishov, who disappeared yesterday in Kyiv, was found hanged today in one of Kyiv’s parks, not far from his place of residence,” Ukrainian police statement said in a statement on Tuesday.
Police said they had launched a criminal case for suspected murder but would investigate all possibilities, including murder disguised as a suicide.
Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania have become havens for Belarusians during a crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko following a disputed election last year.
Belarusian authorities have characterised anti-government protesters as criminals or violent revolutionaries backed by the West and described the actions of law enforcement agencies as adequate and necessary.
Shishov led the Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU) group, which helps Belarusians find accommodation, jobs and legal advice, according to its website.
Friends of Shishov said he had been followed by “strangers” while jogging recently, human rights organisation Vyasna said on Telegram.
BDU said on Monday it was not able to contact Shishov and that he had left his residence at 9am (06:00 GMT) and was supposed to have returned an hour later.
Peter Zalmayev, director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, said the incident was “very tragic, very shocking”.
There were indications Shishov suffered “some sort of assault,” Zalmayev told Al Jazeera from Kyiv, which may rule out the potential of the incident being a suicide, he added.
“I knew him and that does not seem credible to me,” he said.
Zalmayev said Shishov’s death has “implications” for the several thousand Belarusians currently exiled in Kyiv, adding that this was a “signal”.
If Lukashenko’s government is found “guilty”, Shishov’s death would be a message to those in exile to “sit low, keep their mouth shut,” Zalmayev said.
“This is an intimidating signal to the rest,” he said.
Meanwhile, Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told reporters in Downing Street when asked about the incident: “I’d prefer to wait for results of an investigation.”
“I would say it was a crime but I can’t say it without any results of [the] investigation,” she said.
Earlier, Tsikhanouskaya said in a Twitter post it is “worrying” that those who fled Belarus “can’t be safe”.
“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,” Tsikhanouskaya wrote. “It is worrying that those who flee Belarus still can’t be safe. I’m thankful to authorities for launching an investigation into this case.”
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.
I’m thankful to 🇺🇦 authorities for launching an investigation into this case. pic.twitter.com/77otMfjk4q
— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) August 3, 2021
Shishov’s death came as Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said over the weekend she was forced to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics and threatened with forced repatriation for criticising her athletics federation.
The sprinter, who was granted a humanitarian visa by Poland on Monday, said she feared being jailed if she returned to her country.
Her husband Arseny Zdanevich told the AFP news agency on Monday that he had fled Belarus to Ukraine and was hoping to join his wife “in the near future”.