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‘He had a bad feeling’ Ukrainian police launch murder investigation after missing Belarusian activist is found dead in Kyiv

Source: Meduza
Belarusian House in Ukraine

Ukrainian police have opened a murder investigation after finding missing Belarusian activist Vital Shyshou hanged in a Kyiv park on the morning of August 3. Shyshou, who left Belarus in the fall of 2020, was reported missing a day earlier after he went out for a morning jog and never returned. Ukrainian police suspect his death was a suicide or a murder framed as suicide. However, Shyshou’s colleagues and loved ones believe he was killed. Fellow activists from the NGO “Belarusian House in Ukraine” (BDU), which Shyshou founded to help Belarusians fleeing political persecution, said that his face showed signs of having been beaten. BDU also said that sources in Kyiv and Belarus told its members about a network of Belarusian KGB agents allegedly working in Ukraine, and warned about the possibility of “kidnappings and liquidations.” A week before his death, Vital Shyshou noticed that he was being followed and asked friends to “take care” of his loved ones.

Belarusian activist Vital Shyshou (Vitaly Shishov) was found dead in Kyiv on Tuesday, August 3. The 26-year-old head of “Belarusian House in Ukraine” (BDU) — an NGO that helps Belarusians fleeing political persecution — was reported missing the day before. He was found hanged in a park on the western outskirts of Kyiv, not far from his home.

Shyshou disappeared on the morning of August 2. In a statement, BDU said that he went out for a morning jog and never returned. The NGO’s staff reported his disappearance to the police, who began combing the forest where Shyshou usually went running with dogs. The activist wasn’t found on the first day of the search. Volunteers resumed searching around 6:00 a.m. local time on Tuesday and found Shyshou dead. The police seized his cell phone and other personal belongings, which were found nearby, as evidence.

Vital Shyshou was born in Rechytsa, a city in western Belarus, and later moved to Gomel. His girlfriend, Bazhena Zholudz, told the independent Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva that he took part in the opposition protests that followed the contested presidential election in August 2020, and was handed a suspended sentence on extremism charges because of a photo he posted online. Shyshou fled Belarus for Ukraine in October 2020, due to the launch of a criminal case against him for his participation in the opposition demonstrations, Zholudz said. He founded the NGO “Belarusian House in Ukraine” in Kyiv in December 2020.

Kyiv police are investigating two main versions: suicide and murder disguised as suicide. At the same time, the police admitted that other versions may emerge over the course of the investigation. The criminal case was initiated under the criminal code article for premeditated murder (Article 115). The National Police’s Main Directorate in Kyiv summoned Shyshou’s acquaintances to talk about the last weeks of his life, his psychological and emotional state, and possible threats against him. A source in law enforcement told the Ukrainian news site that there were no signs of a staged suicide and that at first glance it appeared that Shyshou took his own life.

However, Shyshou’s girlfriend Bazhena Zholudz said that he never expressed suicidal thoughts. “We were both sick for about a week, lying down, watching movies. Clearly, a sick person’s mood isn’t cheerful, but Vital didn’t have any bad thoughts. I’m sure that he couldn’t have committed suicide. He had no reason for this. And he couldn’t do that to me. We had shared plans for the future,” she told RFE/RL’s Belarusian service.

Shyshou’s body showed signs of injuries: his colleagues believe these were “traces of beatings,” but the police say they were likely the result of a fall. BDU activist Yury Shchuchko, who took part in the search and was one of the first people to identify Shyshou, told Current Time TV that the deceased’s body showed signs of having been beaten. “It’s an old scheme. The man was hanged with traces of beating on his face,” he said.

In turn, Ukrainian National Police Chief Ihor Klymenko said that Shyshou had “scratches, just grazed skin on his nose, on his left knee, and on his chest. “This is typical for a one-time fall, as the experts said,” Klymenko told journalists during a press briefing. The police chief added that there were also some scrapes on the left side of the deceased’s upper lip. The police plan to carry out examinations to verify whether Shyshou sustained these injuries as a result of being beaten up.

Vital Shyshou was warned about being targeted by the Belarusian authorities. He was also followed and, a week before his death, he asked friends to take care of his loved ones. Belarusian House in Ukraine said in a statement that sources in Kyiv and Belarus warned the organization “about all kinds of provocations to the extent of kidnapping and liquidation” — Vital Shyshou responded to this “with humor.” Activist Yury Shchuchko said that BDU members were also warned about Belarusian special forces officers coming to Ukraine “to physically destroy” activists. “This information came from the SBU as well. They said that we should be more careful, because there is a network of [Belarusian] KGB agents working here and anything is possible,” Shchuchko said. 

Vital Shyshou noticed that he was being surveilled while jogging in Kyiv, his colleagues told the Belarusian human rights center Viasna. While the BDU said that they informed the police about the surveillance, Ukrainian police deny this.

Yury Shchuchko, who had known Shyshou since his first days in Ukraine, said that about a week ago the activist asked him to “take care of people close to him, those around him.” Shchuchko didn’t provide any further details. Shyshou’s girlfriend Bazhena Zholudz confirmed that a week before his death, Shyshou asked a friend to “take care of Bazehna,” because he had a “bad feeling.”

Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev said that the investigative group plans to examine the circumstances surrounding Vital Shyshou’s death. Grozev told the radio station Ekho Moskvy that in all likelihood it was not a suicide, but rather the result of a special operation. According to Grozev, Bellingcat started investigating information about Russian FSB operatives infiltrating Belarusian diaspora groups in Ukraine several days before Shyshou was found dead. However, the Bellingcat investigator admitted that this could be a coincidence.

“I would say that this is most likely not a suicide. But I wouldn’t write about it until we have the full picture,” Grozev underscored, adding that Belling will devote all of its resources “to the investigation of this murder, if it is a murder.”

The NGO Belarusian House in Ukraine is reportedly linked to Serhii “Botsman” Korotkykh — a Belarusian neo-Nazi who fought in eastern Ukraine as part of the far-right Azov Battalion, writes RFE/RL’s Belarusian service. BDU told the independent Ukrainian news outlet Zaborona that it has no ties to Korotkykh. However, Korotkykh told Zaborona that he’s been helping the NGO since its inception. He also claimed to have helped Vital Shyshou obtain a residency permit in Ukraine. 

Before moving to Ukraine, Korotkykh lived in Russia, where he co-founded the National Socialist Society — a far-right group whose members have been accused of committing murders motivated by racial hatred (the Russian authorities banned the National Socialist Society as “extremist” in 2010). Serhii Korotkykh is also considered closely linked to Ukraine’s former Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who stepped down from his post in mid-July 2021.

Story by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Eilish Hart