KYIV, Ukraine — A Belarusian activist living in exile in Ukraine was found hanged in a park near his home in Kyiv early on Tuesday, and Ukrainian police said they had launched a murder case.
Vitaly Shishov, who led a Kyiv-based organization that helps Belarusians fleeing persecution, had been reported missing by his partner on Monday after failing to return home from a run.
Police said they had launched a criminal case for suspected murder, including investigating whether attackers had tried to disguise the killing as suicide.
Shishov, 26, had felt under constant surveillance since he left Belarus last year after taking part in anti-government protests, his colleagues said. He had been warned about possible threats, including being kidnapped or killed.
Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania have become havens for Belarusians during a crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko following a disputed election last year. Tens of thousands of people have been detained and leading opposition figures are either in jail or living abroad.
"It is worrying that those who flee Belarus still can't be safe," exiled opposition figure Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said on Twitter.
Shishov's death was reported by the Belarus official news agency Belta, but the Minsk authorities did not otherwise comment. Lukashenko's spokesperson could not be reached.
Yuri Shchuchko, a friend of Shishov, who helped police identify the body, said Shishov's nose had been broken. A police spokesperson declined comment when asked about this.
In May a dissident journalist, Roman Protasevich, was detained by Belarusian security forces after his flight was forced to land in Minsk. This week, a Belarusian athlete took refuge in the Polish embassy in Tokyo after refusing her team's orders to fly home from the Olympics. read more
Sounding the alarm
Shishov led the Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU) group, which helps Belarusians find accommodation, jobs and legal advice.
"We were also repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations, including kidnapping and liquidation," BDU said in a statement. "Vitaly treated these warnings stoically and with humor."
Ihor, 24, a fellow Belarusian exile who has known Shishov since last October, told Reuters that Shishov knew he was under surveillance, recounting instances of his car being followed or his girlfriend being approached by strangers while they were staging protests in Kyiv.
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"Lukashenko's regime is at war, and he is at war. He is at war with anyone who can offer any resistance," said Ihor, who gave only his first name.
Shishov "did not suffer from any psychological disorder, he was always very sober-minded. That's why when he disappeared, we sounded the alarm because we knew he is not a person who could simply disappear, get drunk or party somewhere," Ihor added.
The organization had said on Monday it was not able to contact Shishov. It said Shishov had left his residence at 9 a.m. (1 a.m. ET) and was supposed to have returned an hour later.
The Belarusian authorities have characterized anti-government protesters as criminals or violent revolutionaries backed by the West, and described the actions of their own law enforcement agencies as appropriate and necessary.
"It adds another level to our concerns about what is happening in Belarus," said Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the U.N. human rights office, when asked about Shishov's death, though she said she did not know whether it was connected to politics.