Who was Vitaly Shishov? Activist found dead after helping Belarusians flee President Lukashenko’s regime

(Photo: Belarusian House in Ukraine)(Photo: Belarusian House in Ukraine)
(Photo: Belarusian House in Ukraine)

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Shishov’s death comes just days after Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya vowed to never return to the European country

Vitaly Shishov – a Belarusian human rights activist – has been found hanged in a park in Kiev, police have said.

Shishov left his home for a run on Monday (2 August), and was first reported missing by his partner when he did not return. He is the head of the Ukraine-based non-profit Belarusian House (BDU), an organisation that helps Belarusians fleeing persecution.

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Shishov’s role in helping persecuted political activists flee the country likely made him a target in the eyes of the Belarusian state; anti-government protesters are regarded as criminals in Belarus.

Here is everything you need to know.

What happened to Shishov?

Police have said they are opening an criminal case for suspected murder to investigate the disappearance of Shishov, but have also said they will be investigating all possibilities, including murder disguised as suicide.

In a tweet, Belarusian journalist Taduesz Gizcan said police traced Shishov's phone "to no avail", and that friends had said he had been followed recently.

In a statement, BDU said Shishov – who they said was “under surveillance" – left his home at 9am and was expected to return an hour later.

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“We were repeatedly warned by both local sources and our people in the Republic of Belarus about all kinds of provocations, including kidnapping and liquidation," the organisation said.

"There is no doubt that this is an operation planned by the Chekists to eliminate a truly dangerous regime in Belarus," it added. “We will continue to seek the truth in the death of Vitaly!"

Shishov was forced to flee to Ukraine in 2020, following riots and protests that broke out across the country following the announcement of the results of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s “landslide” re-election.

BDU said Shishov "undertook absolutely all areas of activity: helping relocators, holding actions against the Lukashenka regime, appealing to government agencies to promote bills that help our compatriots, forming a diaspora in Ukraine."

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Why is Belarus in the news?

Belarus has the lowest Democracy Index – an index compiled by the research division of the Economist Group, a UK-based private company which publishes the weekly newspaper The Economist to measure the state of democracy – rating in Europe.

The country is also labelled as "not free" by US-based NGO Freedom House, and was rated as the worst country for press freedom in Europe in the between 2013 and 2014 by Reporters Without Borders.

66-year-old Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, and the former Soviet farm boss' reign has been controversial throughout.

His authoritarian style is reminiscent of the Soviet era, and his administration controls the country's main media channels and regularly jails political opponents.

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Lukashenko was seeking his sixth term in office last year, but faced unprecedented opposition in the lead-up to the election, which had grown due to his approach to the coronavirus crisis, a similar, bolshy approach shared by other right-wing leaders like Donald Trump.

Early in the pandemic, Lukashenko claimed that citizens "just have to work" to combat the virus, saying "the tractor will heal everyone... the fields heal everyone."

He has also claimed that "sport, especially on ice, is better than any antiviral medication" because "it is the real thing", and once suggested that "poisoning" the coronavirus with vodka was an effective treatment against Covid-19.

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Where is Belarus? Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya under protection follo...

The news of Shishov’s death comes just days after Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya sparked an investigation after allegations were made that Belarusian coaching staff attempted to have her removed from the Tokyo Olympics.

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On Sunday (1 August), Tsimanouskaya refused to board a flight from Tokyo after reportedly being taken to the airport against her wishes by her team after she complained about the national coaching staff at the Olympic Games on social media.

On Instagram, Tsimanouskaya documented what she described as “the negligence of our coaches”.

Tsimanouskaya had previously expressed her unhappiness at the fact that she had been put in for the relay event, despite not having raced in such an event before.

Speaking to Reuters, Tsimanouskaya said that coaching staff had come to her room on Sunday and instructed her to pack up. She was then escorted to Haneda airport by representatives of the Belarusian Olympic team.

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However, Tsimanouskaya refused to board the flight. Telling Reuters in a message over Telegram, she said: “I will not return to Belarus.”

Where is Belarus?

Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered by Russia to the east and northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest.

It covers an area of 80,200 square miles, and as of 2020, had an estimated population of 9.4 million people.

Earlier this year, aircraft were instructed to avoid Belarusian airspace and Belarusian airlines were barred from entering UK airspace following the “state-sponsored hijack” of a Ryanair flight to enable the arrest of a prominent critic of Lukashenko’s regime.

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Belarus state media said the aircraft – which was travelling from Athens to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius – was switched to the Belarusian capital of Minsk following a bomb threat.

However, opposition groups said it was an operation by Belarus special services to “hijack” the flight so they could arrest blogger Roman Protasevich.

Protasevich was involved in the opposition movement against Lukashenko – a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin – during the 2020 presidential election.

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