Vitaly Shishov, leader of a group of Belarusian exiles, found dead in Kiev

Shishov, head of the Belarusian House in Ukraine (BDU), “was found hanged today in one of Kiev’s parks, not far from his place of residence,” police said in a statement. “Vitaly’s cell phone and personal effects have been removed from the scene.”

Police have opened a criminal investigation into the alleged “premeditated murder” and will investigate all possibilities, including the possibility that it was “murder disguised as suicide,” the statement said.

Police added that they would interview witnesses and analyze footage from security cameras, and asked those who knew Shishov to provide any relevant information about the last weeks of his life and the possible threats he faced.

Police said earlier Monday that Shishov’s partner reported missing after he went for a run and failed to return.

Belarus has been in the throes of political and social unrest since last year, when a contested election led to mass protests and then a violent crackdown on President Alexander Lukashenko which was condemned by the international community.

The discovery of Shishov’s body comes as Belarus comes under increasing international scrutiny, after a Belarusian Olympic sprinter claimed she was forcibly removed from the Tokyo Games and ordered to return home against at her will, where she fears being arrested.

BDU, Shishov’s organization, is helping Belarusians in flight and exile find housing, employment and legal advice in Ukraine, according to its website. In a separate statement on Monday, BDU said she was unable to contact Shishov.

Shishov “went out, presumably for a daily jog (his sports gear was not found at home) and did not come back,” BDU said. “Several so called ‘jammers’ were made from his number, but now it is impossible to contact him.”

Security cameras recorded Chichov leaving his house around 9 a.m. local time and he was supposed to be back by 10 a.m., BDU said.

“He did not contact him again. We combed through the area where he usually ran, but found no trace of Vitali,” BDU said. “Police have been notified. A dog handler is on the scene and a search is underway.”

BDU added that Shishov’s phone was disconnected from location tracking and he did not have his watch or fitness bracelet. The team called police, who searched the woods with tracking dogs, but had found nothing by the time they released the statement on Monday.

Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania have become safe havens for Belarusians since the unrest began last year.

Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have witnessed mass protests across the country after Lukashenko declared victory in the August vote, in some of the biggest protests in the country’s recent history.

Thousands of people were arrested during the protests, which were brutally suppressed by the authorities amid reports of abuse and torture.

Police body and dashcam footage, provided by defectors from the police force, showed the extraordinary ferocity of riot police against unarmed and peaceful protesters, many of them teenagers.

Many have since fled the Lukashenko regime’s crackdown, sometimes swimming in rivers and crawling through mud to illegally cross the Ukrainian border.

Belarusian Olympic sprinter Kristina Timanovskaya said representatives of the Belarusian national team tried to force her back to her home country after criticizing national sports authorities for signing her up for the 4×400-meter relay in Tokyo without his consent.

Timanovskaya did not say exactly why she feared jail time, but Belarusian athletes have faced reprisals, arrested and kicked out of national teams for criticizing the government after protests last year.

She has since received a humanitarian visa from Poland and will travel there in the coming days, according to Polish authorities. On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee announced that it would launch an official investigation into the situation in Timanovskaya.

Reuters contributed to the report.

About Geraldine Higgins

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