A Belarusian activist living in Ukraine who helped his fellow countrymen flee the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko has been found dead.
Vitaly Shishov, 26, who ran the Belarusian House group in Kiev, was found hanged in a park close to his house today having gone missing while out for a jog on Monday.
Police have opened a murder investigation and say they will be looking into the possibility that Shishov was killed and his death made to look like a suicide, after he previously reported being followed by ‘strangers’ on his runs.
His death comes amid a state crackdown on dissent that saw Olympic officials try to kidnap sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya from the Tokyo Games after she criticised her trainers online.
There are fears that the 24-year-old’s family could now be targeted after she slipped their clutches and made her way to the Polish embassy in Tokyo, where she is now holed up having been granted asylum.
Olympic officials have already contacted her mother, who is still in Belarus, and told that her daughter has been recruited by foreign spies and must be brought home.
Meanwhile husband Arseni Zhdanevich has fled to Kiev, the same city where Shishov was found dead, in the hopes of finding temporary safety there before joining his wife in Poland later. She is due to fly to Warsaw on Wednesday.
Vitaly Shishov, a Belarus activist living in Ukraine, has been found dead a day after going missing while out on a jog with police opening a murder investigation
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, 24, is pictured entering the Polish embassy in Tokyo where she is now holed up after Belarus Olympic officials tried to kidnap her
Tsimanouskaya hit out at her country’s Olympic body – run by dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s son, Viktor – after she was entered into a race without her knowledge, before ‘an order was received’ to send her home
Viktor Lukashenko: Dictator’s son who crushed protests and now leads Olympic committee
The eldest son of Belarus dictator Alexander, 45-year-old Viktor Lukashenko is made in his father’s image – both in terms of looks and personality.
Raised to lead the country, he attended the Belarusian State University where he studied international relations before serving in the country’s border guards as part of his mandatory military service – the same section of the military his father served in.
He went on to work in the foreign ministry and for Agat, a military technology company, before becoming national security adviser to his father in 2005.
During protests that followed the 2010 election in Belarus, which Lukashenko is widely thought to have rigged, Viktor was involved in repressing dissent.
He was subsequently sanctioned by the EU, which accused him of playing ‘a key role in the repressive measures implemented against the democratic opposition and civil society… In particular in the crackdown of the demonstration on 19 December.’
On that occasion, riot police had brutally beaten thousands of protesters and arrested hundreds as they tried to storm the presidential palace in frustration at the election result.
Vladimir Neklyaev, an opposition leader, was beaten unconscious in a separate incident before being carried away to jail wrapped in a carpet.
Viktor was elected as head of Belarus’s Olympic Committee – replacing his father – in February this year, prompting sanctions from the global body.
The International Olympic Committee said in March that it refused to recognise the election and would ban both Alexander and Viktor Lukashenko from attending the Tokyo Games for ‘failing to protect athletes from political discrimination’ following anti-regime protests in which many sportsmen took part.
Dmitry Baskov, who was elected board member of the Belarus committee, was also sanctioned. He is suspected of ordering or participating in the beating of artist Raman Bandarenka, who later died in hospital.
Shishov ran Belarusian House in Kiev – an organisation that helped his fellow countrymen escape Lukashenko’s increasingly brutal regime.
The group provided advice on accommodation, jobs and legal issues, according to its website.
Vyasna human rights organisation said that ‘unknown people had been watching him during his jogging.
‘Suspicious people also approached him and his girlfriend, trying to talk.’
A spokesman for Belarusian House said there is ‘no doubt’ he died in an ‘operation’ by the Belarus secret police.
Agents acted to ‘eliminate a Belarus man who was truly dangerous for the regime,’ the spokesman said, adding: ‘Vitali was under surveillance.
‘The facts were notified to the police.
‘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.
‘Vitaly treated these warnings stoically and with humour.’
Police have launched an appeal for information from friends on ‘possible threats’ against him, and well as details on his psychological state.
Speaking from Kiev on Monday, just hours after Shishov went missing, Zhdanevich said he ‘made the decision to leave [Belarus] without thinking twice’ after it emerged his wife was being targeted.
It is not clear whether he was in contact with Belarus House at any point during his escape from the country.
‘We’re just normal sports people,’ he added, speaking on behalf of his wife. ‘We’re just devoted to sports and we’re not interested in the opposition movement.’
It is not clear exactly how many of Tsimanouskaya’s relatives are in Belarus, though it is thought both her parents and grandmother still live there.
Lukashenko’s enemies have been found dead by hanging in suspicious circumstances previously.
In 2010, Oleg Byabenin, a Belarusian journalist and founder of Charter’97 human rights group, was found hanged at a country house.
His colleagues disputed the official finding of suicide.
Last year activist Nikita Krivtsov, 28, was found hanged in a Minsk park.
Tsimanouskaya became a target of the regime when she uploaded a post to Instagram last week criticising her trainers for entering her into the 4x400m relay without her knowledge and without her training for the event.
She was due to compete in the 200m sprint on Monday.
She was next seen at Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Sunday where she handed herself over to police, claiming she was being taken out of the country against her will and that she feared for her safety if she returned home.
Belarus’ leader President Alexander Lukashenko, known as Europe’s last dictator, has cracked down on dissent since claiming victory in elections last year that are widely considered to have been rigged – jailing critics who have reported being beaten and electrocuted by police behind bars. At least 10 people have died as a result, opposition activist say.
State-owned media in Belarus turned against Tsimanouskaya after her Instagram post and continued to rail against her after news of her escape, describing her as a ‘rotten dog’ and ‘Instagram diva’ who is a ‘disgrace to her country’.
A presenter for the state-owned ONT broadcaster ominously warned: ‘Something tells us that this is the end of Tsimanouskaya, not even as a sports person, but just as a person.’
Meanwhile an audio recording has been leaked purporting to capture the moment Tsimanouskaya was told she would be flying home after ‘an order was received’ from on-high.
The audio, released by Belarus Telegram channel ‘Nick and Mike’ which is hostile to Lukashenko, allegedly documents Tsimanouskaya arguing with two men identified as Belarus athletics head coach Yuri Moisevich and Artur Shumak, deputy director of the country’s athletics training academy.
Lukashenko targets athletes after they led protests against him
Sport is never far from politics in the ex-Soviet country ruled by Lukashenko, the long-serving authoritarian leader who sparked mass protests last year for claiming to have won a sixth presidential term.
Belarusian security forces unleashed a crackdown against the protests, detaining thousands of demonstrators and pushing opposition leaders into exile.
Shortly before the Tokyo Games, Lukashenko warned sports officials and athletes that he expected results in Tokyo.
‘Think about it before going,’ he said. ‘If you come back with nothing, it’s better for you not to come back at all.’
Tsimanouskaya was one of more than 2000 Belarusian sports figures who signed an open letter last year calling for new elections and for all political prisoners to be freed following the mass protests.
Some athletes were also briefly detained in the protests, including a kickboxing champion and an Olympic medalist.
In August last year, Tsimanouskaya had called for an end to repression.
‘I am against any kind of repression, I am for peace, for honesty, for freedom of speech,’ she said in a post on Instagram underneath a photo of her holding the Belarusian flag.
Aside from that post, Tsimanouskaya’s Instagram is dominated by posts about her training sessions and nutrition.
Belarus’s exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya accused the Lukashenko regime of trying to ‘kidnap’ Tsimanouskaya.
‘Tsimanouskaya is proof that any Belarusian athlete sent to the Olympics can become a hostage if he finds the courage to speak,’ she said on messaging app Telegram.
Belarusian state television scorned the runner, with one presenter calling her ‘a person that has nothing to do with the Olympic movement’.
The country’s sports and political officials have suggested that the incident was pre-planned and could have been orchestrated from outside.
‘It is possible that (outside influence) was working with the girl,’ said political commentator Alexander Shpakovsky in the official newspaper of Belarus’s presidential administration, Sovetskaya Belorussiya, suggesting the country’s neighbours were involved.
Born in 1996 in eastern Belarus, Tsimanouskaya competed in the 200m at the world championships in Doha in 2019, but was knocked out in the heats after finishing fourth in her race in a time of 23.22 seconds.
On the tape, the man believed to be Shumak tells her that ‘an order has been received’ for her to go home, saying the plan is to play it off in public as a sports injury but that in reality it is because of ‘accusations and comments that you made’.
A man believed to be Moisevich then tells her bluntly to ‘shut up’ and ‘obey’, adding that ‘nothing good will happen’ if she decides to stay in Tokyo.
But Tsimanouskaya pushes back, prompting Shumak to compare her to a fly caught in a web.
‘When a fly gets into a web, the more it moves, the more it gets entangled. This is how life works,’ he says. ‘We do stupid things, you have done something stupid. I hope you understand that.’
Moisevich then adds: ‘If (you) do not obey, then we have no escape routes. You know, if there is gangrene, they cut off half of the leg, otherwise they cannot save the whole organism.
‘Yes, sorry for the leg. Otherwise, stay with your leg and die.’
When Tsimanouskaya accuses him of ‘covering your own a**’ by ordering her to go home, he encourages her to be ‘smart’ and not resist. ‘Believe me, I’m not saving my own a**,’ he adds.
It is not clear how the audio was recorded or leaked, though it appears it was made before Tsimanouskaya was taken to the airport.
The sprinter fell foul Belarusian officials after criticising national coaches after she was entered into a 4x400m relay event without her knowledge and having never trained for the event. Tsimanouskaya is a 200m sprinter.
Tsimanouskaya said in an interview with Tribuna.com: ‘I am afraid that in Belarus they might put me in jail. I am not afraid that I will be fired or kicked out of the national [team]. I am worried about my safety. And I think that at the moment it is not safe for me in Belarus.’
Tsimanouskaya recounted how on Saturday she was told she needed to be ‘removed from the Olympics’ and claimed that Yuri Moisevich, the head coach of the Belarusian national team, warned her that if she did not agree to drop out of the 200m: ‘I will be removed from the national team, deprived of work and, perhaps, there will be some other consequences.’
The two eventually decided she would run but the following day she was instructed to pack up. She claims Moisevich told her the decision was no longer with the Ministry of Sport, and had been made ‘at a higher level’.
Tsimanouskaya is being assisted by the BSSF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has also become involved in the case following an appeal from the athlete.
‘The IOC and Tokyo 2020 have spoken to Krystsina Tsymanouskaya directly tonight,’ the organisation said in a Twitter post on Sunday.
‘She is with the authorities at Haneda airport and is currently accompanied by a staff member of Tokyo 2020. She has told us that she feels safe,’ it said in a tweet.
‘The IOC and Tokyo 2020 will continue their conversations with Krystsina Tsimanouskaya and the authorities to determine the next steps in the upcoming days.’
Tsimanouskaya sought police help at Haneda airport in Tokyo on Sunday, claiming she was being kidnapped before officers to her to a ‘secure’ location where she remained overnight
Tsimanouskaya says she fears being jailed if she is sent back to Belarus, where Lukashenko has made a habit of locking up his critics with many reporting being beaten and tortured by police behind bars
Ms Tsimanouskaya was born and raised in Belarus, but will now fly to Poland on August 4 to try and start a new life after criticism of her Olympic coaches led to her being threatened. Meanwhile husband Arseni Zhdanevich has fled to Ukraine, saying he hopes to join his wife in Warsaw ‘in the near future’
The sprinter’s dilemma began when she alleged in a now-deleted Instagram video that she was entered into a 4x400m relay event on Thursday at short notice by Belarusian officials after some team mates were found to be ineligible to compete.
She claimed that following the release of the video coaching staff had come to her room on Sunday and told her to pack to return home.
Tsimanouskaya told Tribuna that she packed as slowly as possible, while contacting relatives and authorities for advice. She said was told to seek help from police at the airport.
The BSSF said Tsimanouskaya had been targeted by supporters of the Belarusian government, led by Alexander Lukashenko, who is often dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’.
‘The campaign was quite serious and that was a clear signal that her life would be in danger in Belarus,’ Alexander Opeikin, a spokesman for the BSSF, told The Associated Press in an interview.
‘We appealed to a number of countries for help,’ said Herasimenia, a three-time Olympic medallist. ‘But the first that reacted was the Polish consulate. We are ready to accept their help.’
Tsimanouskaya summoned Japanese police at Haneda Airport and did not board a flight departing for Istanbul. Foreign ministry officials arrived later at the airport, Opeikin said.
In a statement on Sunday afternoon, the Belarusian Olympic Committee said that national coaches had decided to withdraw Tsimanouskaya from the Tokyo Games on doctors’ advice about her ’emotional, psychological state’.
She refuted this assessment, telling Tribuna she was never visited by a doctor.
‘No doctors came to me, no one examined me. I have a good psychological state, even though such a situation has occurred. I carry on normally, I have no health problems, no injuries, no mental issues. I was ready to run,’ Tsimanouskaya said.
The IOC had been in dispute with the Belarus National Olympic Committee ahead of the Tokyo Games.
The Belarus National Olympic Committee has been led for more than 25 years by Lukashenko and his son, Viktor.
Both Lukashenkos are banned from the Tokyo Olympics by the IOC, which investigated complaints from athletes that they faced reprisals and intimidation in fallout from protests since last August after the country’s disputed presidential election.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who was due to compete in the women’s 200 meters on Monday, told Reuters she did not plan to return to her country and that she had sought the protection of Japanese police at Tokyo’s Haneda airport so she would not have to board the flight
Tsimanouskaya (left) competes in the women’s 100m heats at the 2020 Tokyo Games on Saturday
The suspected attempted kidnapping comes months after Western countries condemned the government of Kremlin-backed strongman Lukashenko after it scrambled a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to hijack a commercial passenger plane so it could arrest a dissident journalist.
Tsimanouskaya competed for Belarus on the first day of track events on Friday at the National Stadium in Tokyo. She placed fourth in her first-round heat in the 100 meters, timing 11.47 seconds, and did not advance.
She filmed a video that was published on Telegram earlier on Sunday by the BSSF, in which she asked the IOC to get involved in her case.
She said: ‘I am asking the International Olympic Committee for help. There is pressure against me and they are trying to get me out of the country without my permission. So, I am asking the IOC to get involved in this.’
Tsimanouskaya told Reuters from the airport: ‘Some of our girls did not fly here to compete in the 4x400m relay because they didn’t have enough doping tests. And the coach added me to the relay without my knowledge. I spoke about this publicly. The head coach came over to me and said there had been an order from above to remove me.
Dissident journalists said Belarusian state media launched a campaign against Tsimanouskaya after she criticised Belarus national team’s management on Friday.
Minsk-based journalist Hanna Liubakova posted a video which appeared to show the athlete at the airport, tweeting: ‘Tsimanouskaya was accompanied to the airport by two members of the Belarusian sports delegation. She is now with the police and volunteers. When asked if she was afraid to fly to #Belarus, Tsimanouskaya answered ‘yes’.’
The sprinter said that she had reached out to members of the Belarusian diaspora in Japan to retrieve her at the airport, adding: ‘I think I am safe. I am with the police.’
She later said that members of the diaspora had come to stand outside the airport to offer their support.
The incident is reminiscent of the kidnapping of Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega in Minsk after Lukashenko scrambled a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to escort a commercial passenger plane back to Belarus.
Ryanair flight FR4978 had been flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania in May when it was forced to make an emergency landing in Minsk amid fake reports of an IED on board.
Protasevich was then seen on June 4 in a tearful interview aired on state media in which he confessed to calling for protests last year and praised Lukashenko.
Jailed journalist Roman Protasevich last appeared at a press conference in Minsk in June, telling reporters he felt ‘wonderful’
Vladimir Putin (left) was virtually the only supporter of Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko (left) over the hijacking of a Ryanair passenger plane earlier this month which was escorted to Minsk by a fighter jet and forced to land so authorities could arrest a dissident journalist
Belarus was rocked by strikes and weekly street protests after authorities announced that Lukashenko, who has ruled in authoritarian fashion since 1994, had secured re-election on August 9, 2020 with 80 per cent of votes
The incident prompted the European Union to ban Belarusian airlines, urge EU airlines not to cross into Belarusian airspace and threaten tough economic sanctions on Lukashenko’s government.
The British Government instructed all UK planes to cease flying over Belarus. Some countries have also imposed sanctions against Belarusian officials over a crackdown on demonstrators and a presidential election last year that the opposition said was rigged.
Lukashenko has kept a tight grip on Belarus, a former Soviet state, since 1994. Faced with mass street protests last year over the elections, he ordered a violent crackdown on protesters. Lukashenko denies the allegations of vote-rigging.
Unusually in a country where elite athletes often rely on government funding, some prominent Belarusian athletes joined the protests.
Several were jailed, including Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka and decathlete Andrei Krauchanka.
Others lost their state employment or were kicked off national teams for supporting the opposition.
During the Cold War, scores of sports people and cultural figures defected from the Soviet Union and its satellite states during overseas competitions or tours. But the freedom of travel that came with the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union saw the need for such dramatic acts dwindle.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin was virtually the only world leader to defend Lukashenko over the hijacking. Russia promised Belarus a £1.06billion loan last year as part of Moscow’s efforts to stabilise its neighbour and longstanding ally. Minsk received a first instalment of £352million in October.
Following talks in Sochi, Russia said it will move ahead with a second £352million loan to Belarus.
In May, the head of NATO linked the Kremlin to the hijack of the Ryanair jet by Belarus, having previously described the incident as a ‘state-sponsored hijacking’.
Europe’s last dictator: Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994
Born in 1954 in the village of Kopys, in what was then the USSR, Alexander Lukashenko was the son of an unknown father – thought by some to by a Roma gypsy – and a labourer mother, Ekaterina Lukashenko.
He studied in Belarus and graduated from the Mogilyov Teaching Institute in 1975, then went on to study at the Belarusian Agricultural Academy in the 1980s.
He did a brief stint in the Belarusian border guards and also served in the Soviet Army, becoming involved in politics as a teacher within the military and as the leader of a Leninist organisation in the city of Mogilev.
After leaving the military he joined the ranks of the Communist Party and was appointed leader of a state farm, before being elected to the Supreme Council of Belarus in 1990.
Lukashenko made his name as an anti-corruption campaigner and emerged as a strong political ally of Moscow – the only deputy to oppose the December 1991 agreement that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In 1994 he appealed to Russia to form a new union of Slavic states, shortly before his election as President of Belarus – promising stronger ties between the two nations.
Two years later, he persuaded voters to approve a new constitution allowing him to extend his term in office, rule by decree, and to appoint a majority of parliament.
Lukashenko used those powers to extend his term in 1999, and won an election in 2001 and another in 2006 – amid allegations of vote-rigging that resulted EU leaders banning him from their countries.
Election victories – accompanied by more allegations of fixing – followed again in 2010 and 2015.
Lukashenko’s popularity declined rapidly between 2015 and 2020, spurred on by his increasingly erratic behaviour coupled with mismanagement of the Covid crisis – during which he claimed vodka and saunas could prevent the disease.
Amid a wave of dissent, another election was held in 2020 which returned an official victory for Lukashenko with 80 per cent of the vote – though few believe this to be accurate.
His main opponent – Sergei Tikhanovsky – was arrested in the run-up to the ballot, leaving wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to run in his stead. She subsequently fled the country to Lithuania after being targeted by police.
Anger at the result sparked the largest wave of protests in Belarus since its Soviet days, with mass demonstrations, strikes and calls for a change of leadership.
Lukashenko responded by sending riot police on to the streets to round up dissenters, with an estimated 25,000 arrested by November. Ten have so-far died amid the crackdown.
Lukashenko has also cracked down on journalists, raiding the offices of the country’s largest newspaper Tut.by along with the home of its editor on charges of ‘tax evasion’.
In May he staged his most-daring move yet, diverting a Ryanair jet carrying dissident reporter Roman Protasevich to Lithuania before arresting him.
Mr Protasevich’s allies, including Ms Tsikhanouskaya, say they now fear for his life.