Missing Belarusian Activist Is Found Dead in Park in Ukraine


MOSCOW — A Belarusian antigovernment activist was found dead in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on Tuesday, in what police described as a murder or a suicide, casting a renewed spotlight on the risks faced by opponents of the Belarusian ruler Aleksandr G. Lukashenko even outside their own country.

The activist, Vitaly Shishov, 26, went missing on Monday after going out for a morning jog, said his colleagues, who accused the Belarusian authorities of killing him. The Kyiv police said that Mr. Shishov had been found hanged in a park near his home and that they were investigating the possibility that the death was a “murder masked as a suicide.”

“The full picture of events will be confirmed after the questioning of witnesses, the analysis of video recordings” and other investigative steps, the police said.

Mr. Lukashenko, Belarus’s authoritarian leader, who has been in power since 1994, has long repressed dissent at home and jailed thousands after large-scale protests over his rule last year. Now, events in recent weeks suggest that he is also escalating his campaign against the growing number of Belarusian exiles abroad.

In May, Mr. Lukashenko forced the landing of a passenger plane with an exiled Belarusian activist aboard and had him arrested. On Sunday, a Belarusian Olympic sprinter sought protection at a Tokyo airport as her nation tried to forcibly send her home from the Summer Games. She said she feared for her safety after criticizing her coaches and the country’s national Olympic committee.

Mr. Shishov was the director of the Belarusian House in Ukraine, an organization that helped people trying to escape repression in Belarus after the antigovernment protests last summer and fall.

Credit…Human Rights Center Viasna, via Associated Press

While the circumstances surrounding Mr. Shishov’s death remained murky, critics of Mr. Lukashenko quickly pointed the finger at his authoritarian regime.

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“It is worrying that those who flee Belarus still can’t be safe,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the pro-democracy opposition leader from Belarus who fled the country last year after claiming victory in a presidential election, said on Twitter.

Mr. Shishov disappeared after going out for a 9 a.m. jog near his Kyiv home on Monday, colleagues at Belarusian House said in a statement. Since fleeing to Ukraine last fall, the statement said, he had organized aid for other exiles, staged anti-Lukashenko protests and petitioned the Ukrainian authorities to support the Belarusian diaspora.

“The death takes place amid an unacceptable Belarusian crack down on civil society,” the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said on Twitter. “We look forward to a complete and thorough investigation by Ukrainian authorities to establish its causes and circumstances.”

Last week, according to his Facebook posts, Mr. Shishov helped organize a rally in Kyiv marking the 31st anniversary of Belarus’s independence from the Soviet Union.

His colleagues said that he believed he was being followed and that supporters in Belarus had warned him of potential threats to his life. He responded jokingly that if something happened to him, it might help his organization get much-needed attention.

“Vitaly faced these warnings with stoicism and with humor,” the organization said. “There is no doubt that this was a spy-organized operation to liquidate a Belarusian who was truly a danger to the regime.”

Ukraine’s national police chief, Ihor Klymenko, said the authorities had not been notified by Mr. Shishov that he was being followed. Mr. Klymenko told reporters that Mr. Shishov had been found dead with light injuries to his nose, left knee and chest.

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“The experts said this is all characteristic of a one-time fall,” Mr. Klymenko said, according to the Ukrainian news agency Ukrinform.

Mr. Shishov, from the Belarusian region of Gomel near the Ukrainian and Russian border, arrived in Kyiv after taking part in antigovernment rallies, his colleagues said. Last year’s protests erupted after Mr. Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in a presidential election that was widely considered fraudulent.

For many exiles, Ukraine, which has a visa-free policy for Belarusians, is a transit point on the way to European Union countries like Poland and Lithuania. But Mr. Shishov decided to stay and became part of Kyiv’s growing community of Belarusian activists. He participated in solidarity rallies at Kyiv’s central Independence Square and tried to help other new arrivals find work and lodging.

“He was a calm, balanced person,” said Alena Talstaya, a leader of Razam, another Belarusian opposition group in Kyiv. “He said his main sphere of activity was helping refugees.”

The flow of Belarusian exiles to Ukraine increased in recent weeks, Ms. Talstaya said, amid a new wave of raids and arrests directed against journalists and rights activists. Mr. Lukashenko said last month that his security services were mounting a “cleansing operation” against Western-backed “bandits and foreign agents” intent on unseating him.

As a result, hostels, hotels and friends’ spare rooms in Ukraine filled with Belarusians fleeing possible arrest, Ms. Talstaya said. Even abroad, however, Belarusians are not completely safe.

“Hiding is impossible and pointless,” Ms. Talstaya said. “No person can live in permanent fear.”

Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, and Megan Specia from London. Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow.

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