As they gathered to pay tribute to activist Vitali Shishov who was found dead in Kyiv on Tuesday, Belarusian exiles in Ukraine said they no longer felt safe from their country's autocratic leader.
Hundreds of Belarusian exiles gathered in front of the country's embassy in Ukraine on Tuesday evening to honour activist Vitali Shishov, who was found dead in Kyiv in the morning.
Shishov ran the Belarusian House in Ukraine, a group helping Belarusians fleeing persecution.
The Belarusian activist went for his usual run on Monday, but he never returned. Friends were searching for him through the night. He was found hanged on Tuesday morning in a forest in the easternmost part of Kyiv.
Police have opened an investigation and are working on two theories, suicide or "murder disguised as suicide".
Shishov 'positive about his fight against the dictator'
But the Belarusian community in Kyiv is convinced he was killed by people connected to Belarus' president. Alexander Lukashenko was reelected last August but critics say the vote was rigged. The election sparked widespread protests and a brutal crackdown on dissent, sparking some Belarusians to flee to other parts of Europe, including Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine.
Alexander, whom Euronews met at a vigil on Tuesday evening outside the Belarusian embassy, believes Shishov was murdered.
“In general, I agree with our organisation, that this is the work of KGB or maybe Russian security services. I definitely think it was a murder because last Sunday I spoke with him and he was very positive about continuing work and his fight against the dictator,” said Alexander, who knew Shishov personally.
“I don’t think it is suicide. It looks like what the regime has been doing before. It is not the first case of this,” said Alexander.
Both men fled Belarus in autumn last year, as repression against opponents grew more brutal.
Alexander was echoing the views of the Belarusian House in Ukraine, which said the death of Shishov was a "planned operation" by the Belarusian regime.
That view was widely shared among the hundreds of protesters attending the vigil, though some said they needed more information to make up their minds.
“Probably it was a murder, as far as I can read. It looks like it was a murder, but we need some more information, so these are my thoughts for now,” said Illia.
'I feel less safe, now'
While suicide has yet to be ruled out, Shishov's death is interpreted as a clear message by the Belarusian exiles in Kyiv that they are not on safe territory.
“I feel a little less safe now. We are not as active as Vitali was, but anyway, this case demonstrates that a lot of people might not be as safe as they think,” said Illia.
Another protester told a Polish journalist that he felt he was becoming paranoid before, but the death of Shishov made it clear that his paranoia was justified.
Alexander too initially felt safe when he arrived in Kyiv. Now he is not so sure.
“Now, I hope… I don’t know, but I think we must save a lot of people here. I hope in a democratic Belarus, when Lukashenko is arrested, we will know everything about this situation.”
'Stop walking with flowers'
Bazhena Zholud, the girlfriend of Vitali Shishov, addressed the crowd gathered at the vigil with a tearful and vengeful speech.
“I want to address all of the Belarusians. There are many media here. Stop walking with flowers and posters, we can’t achieve anything with peaceful protest. Yesterday it happened to Vitali, and tomorrow it will happen to you. And they just don’t care, that we stand here and shout. I ask you to leave the flowers and posters and start unpeaceful protesting,” said Zholud.
“His murder shows that nobody is insured against the threat of political murders. Unfortunately, nobody today can feel safe as long as the regimes of Lukashenko and Putin live on,” Olena Tolstaya, co-head of Movement of Solidarity “Together,” told the Polish Press Agency.
As the crowd lit candles and laid flowers, Alexander remembered his friend.
“He was kind and very outgoing. He liked to engage, to speak with you, to find common ground, and in general, he was very good at helping other refugees here,” he said.