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A suspicious death
Sensemaker audio

A suspicious death

A suspicious death

When the Belarusian human rights activist Vitaly Shishov was found hanged in a forest on the outskirts of Kyiv in Ukraine it was reported as suicide. His friends were immediately suspicious. They think it might be a political murder. Why?


Transcript

Claudia Williams: Hi, I’m Claudia and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, the activist who tried to stand up against Europe’s last dictator. 

And just a warning, this episode contains descriptions of suicide.

***

[Clip of vigil for Vitaly Shishov]

The sound you’re hearing there is from a vigil. It’s for a man named Vitaly Shishov.

And at the vigil, there are hundreds of Belarusian exiles and diaspora. They’re standing outside the Belarus embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine to commemorate Vitaly Shishov’s life. 

But it was just as much a protest as it was a memorial.  

Because the man they’re remembering is a young human rights activist. He co-founded the “Belarusian House” in Ukraine, an organisation that helps Belarusians fleeing persecution to settle abroad. 

He was an outspoken critic of the government in Belarus and last Autumn, he chose to leave the country because of the prominent role he was playing in anti-government protests. 

He knew he was in danger, he mentioned it a few times.

So when his body was found hanged in a forest on the outskirts of Kyiv, his friends and colleagues were immediately suspicious.

“A Belarusian activist has been found dead in neighbouring Ukraine, a day after he was reported missing… police say Vitaly Shishov was found hanged in a park near his home…”

DW News

Initial reports suggested suicide but Vitaly Shishov’s friends don’t buy it.

In fact they think this might be a political murder that has been made to look like a suicide. 

So, what happened? 

***

There’s a good reason that President Alexander Lukashenko is called “Europe’s last dictator”. He was elected in 1994, in the last free and fair election in Belarus. But every election since, over nearly 30 years, has been disputed.

Opposition candidates are often arrested or exiled and independent polling is largely illegal. 

Widespread corruption, a faltering economy and a badly mishandled coronavirus pandemic has led to an incredibly unhappy population. 

And this all came to a boiling point in the 2020 elections, where President Lukashenko claimed he got 80 percent of the vote. 

“Does anyone in Belarus believe the result? …there is real disenchantment with the way he has been leading Belarus over the last decade or so and in particular his handling of the Covid-19 virus… There is a frustration…”

Robert Parsons, France24 Chief Foreign Editor

The election has largely been considered a sham and the people of Belarus had had enough.

[Clip of Belarusian protests]

Tens of thousands of protesters filled the streets of Minsk on a scale not seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

They protested for weeks and weeks. 35,000 people were arrested and thousands more were beaten by police. 

Vitaly Shishov was there.

But when the government began to crackdown against dissidents, that’s when he fled to Ukraine where he continued his activism. Once in Ukraine, Vitaly Shishov began to stage rallies. He held “sit ins” outside the Belarusian embassy and he helped other exiles settle in Kyiv. 

So when his colleagues and loved ones were told he’d taken his own life, they didn’t believe it. In their eyes, Vitaly Shishov was clearly a target. 

***

[Clip of Ukrainian police officer speaking about Vitaly Shishov’s death]

That’s a Ukrainian police officer describing the injuries sustained on Vitaly Shishov’s body.

His nose was broken and he had abrasions on his knee, chest and lip. 

These kinds of injuries aren’t typical for someone who has recently taken their own life by hanging, especially the broken nose. 

Vitaly Shishov had reportedly told a friend just a few days before that he had a “bad feeling”. As the protests grew, he believed Belarus’s special services were beginning to infiltrate protest groups. They wanted to identify activists and organisers and shut them down.

And because Vitaly Shishov was the founder of several anti-government social messenger channels, he knew that his loud opposition would probably put him in danger. 

So many of his supporters think the authorities are making an example of him and that what happened to him is meant as a warning to others. 

“He’s ascending to the rest of the exiles in Ukraine and elsewhere to sit low, keep their mouth shut, because this is what’s going to happen to you.”

Peter Zalmayev, Eurasia Democracy Initiative

Remember, just two months ago a Ryanair flight was allegedly forced to land in Belarus so that an opposition journalist could be arrested and last week, an Olympic athlete refused to return home because she feared for her life.

It’s clear that President Lukashenko is cracking down but the real test will be whether he can hold onto power, or whether the power of the opposition he so fears will finally topple him.  

Today’s story was written by Nimo Omer and produced by Imy Harper.