The head of a Kyiv-based non-profit organisation that helps Belarusians fleeing persecution has been found dead in a park in the Ukrainian capital, police have said.
Vitaly Shishov, the head of Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU), was reported missing by his partner on Monday after he did not return from a run and could not be reached on his mobile phone.
“Belarusian citizen Vitaly Shishov, who had gone missing in Kyiv yesterday, was today found hanged in one of the Kyiv parks, not far from where he lived,” police said in a statement, adding that they had opened a murder investigation and would pursue all leads including a possible “murder disguised as a suicide”.
Friends of Shishov said he had been followed by “strangers” while jogging recently, the human rights organisation Viasna said on Telegram. The organisation said on Monday it was not able to contact Shishov, who it said had left his residence at 9am (0700 BST) and was supposed to have returned an hour later.
Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania have become safe havens for Belarusians during a violent crackdown by the country’s strongman president, Alexander Lukashenko, on any form of dissent since mass protests erupted after last year’s disputed elections.
Belarusian authorities have characterised anti-government protesters as criminals or violent revolutionaries backed by the west, describing the actions of law enforcement agencies as adequate and necessary.
BDU helps Belarusians find accommodation, jobs and legal advice, according to its website. In a separate statement, the organisation said it was not able to contact Shishov.
Shishov’s disappearance comes as Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya said she was forced to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics and threatened with forced repatriation for criticising her athletics federation on social media.
The sprinter, who was granted a humanitarian visa from Poland on Monday, said she feared being jailed if she returned to her country, where the authorities have targeted the president’s opponents, rights activists and journalists.
Her husband, Arseny Zdanevich, told AFP he had fled from Belarus to Ukraine and was hoping to join his wife “in the near future”.
Lukashenko and his son Viktor have been banned from Olympic events over the targeting of athletes for their political views.
The president sparked international outrage in May by dispatching a fighter jet to intercept a Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania in order to arrest a dissident onboard.
With Reuters and Agence France-Presse