A dual Belarusian American citizen and political strategist who worked for presidential candidates in the United States has been languishing in a prison in Minsk, Belarus, for nearly two months. Vitali Shkliarov was mistreated and denied medical treatment after showing COVID-19-like symptoms while in detention, according to his wife.
Heather Shkliarov, an employee of the US State Department, wrote in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News through her lawyer that she was increasingly concerned about her husband’s physical and psychological well-being , who was arrested by Belarusian security services in the western town of Grodno on July 29. Vitali accused of organizing illegal campaign rally, a felony punishable by up to three years in prison if convicted.
“Vitali has been under extreme psychological pressure and deprived of basic physical freedoms in what he told his lawyer is an attempt to incriminate himself,” Heather said in her opening comments on his situation. husband. Although she has not been allowed to meet or speak directly with Vitali since her arrest, she learned of her situation through notes the couple were able to do without and through her lawyer, who has access to him in prison.
Heather said her husband’s health was also in immediate danger.
“On September 8, Vitali started feeling extremely ill and for several consecutive days reported a fever of over 102 degrees, along with breathing problems, chills and muscle pain. The prison authorities refused to give him a COVID-19 test or to treat him for his fever, which can only be seen as a new attempt to weaken his psychological will in order to extract a false confession from him, ”he said. she declared.
It is unusual for an active US diplomat to speak publicly in this manner – this task is usually left to senior State Department officials. Talk to journalists Last week US Assistant Secretary of State Stephen Biegun called on Belarusian authorities to release all detained protesters and specifically said: “Vitali Shkliarov must be released”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also mentioned Vitali by name in a September 8 statement denouncing the kidnapping of Belarusian opposition leaders.
But Pompeo and Biegun didn’t say much else about it, and didn’t say what efforts were being made to free him.
Heather did not say that she is speaking out now for any reason other than to encourage Belarus to release her husband. “The views expressed in this statement are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the US government,” she wrote. But two European-focused US diplomats said his move was seen by some in the halls of the State Department as an attempt to get Pompeo to do more.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to a reporter, U.S. diplomats told BuzzFeed News that some State Department employees had expressed frustration at the they had felt like a lack of action on the part of the Secretary of State in Vitali’s case. . One of the diplomats called Pompeo’s and Biegun’s public statements “trite.”
Vitali, who holds a U.S. diplomatic passport, worked on the presidential campaigns of Senator Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama in 2016 and 2012, respectively. This work, his Belarusian heritage, and his American citizenship may have made him a target of Lukashenko’s security forces.
Belarusian authorities arrested thousands of demonstrators who has knocked down in the streets cities across the country to challenge what they believe is a government rigged election to extend dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year reign. In the midst of the repression, stories emerged dozens of demonstrators on abuse and torture by the dreaded Lukashenko riot police and KGB security agents.
Lukashenko, 66, called Belarusians protesting against him “rats” and was seen trampling his presidential palace. wear riot gear and an assault rifle. Without evidence, he tried to describe the uprising as a Western-backed coup attempt, with people coming from abroad to help organize. On Monday, he met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, where the two discussed closer integration and Lukashenko claimed he was facing a military threat from the West.
Vitali told BuzzFeed News in a letter from his lawyer on Aug. 7 that he was crammed into an overcrowded cell inside a damp basement with mold and cockroaches. In one follow-up letter shared with BuzzFeed News last month, he compared being held in a Belarusian prison to the gulag in the Soviet Union, where political prisoners were sent. “They are trying to break me by any means,” he said.
But, with her statement, Heather painted the darkest picture to date of her husband’s life inside the Belarusian detention center for nearly seven weeks.
“He is constantly moved from cell to cell to avoid having a feeling of stability. The lights are never off in his cell and loud music is played all night long, so he can never sleep properly. He is only allowed to bathe with a bucket of hot water on Wednesdays. He was subjected to extreme strip searches, forced to stand naked in a cell for hours at a time, and was never allowed to sit on his bed during the day. He has a badly broken toe, caused by an incident he is too afraid to describe even to his own lawyer, and which the prison refuses to deal with, ”she said.
Heather said she has been unable to speak directly with Vitali since her arrest.
“At first we were allowed to pass notes in Russian through his lawyer, but they accused him of trying to pass me notes in English and stopped allowing him to write to me. She said. “I am authorized to transmit notes to him through the consular official in Minsk, who was recently allowed to visit Vitali every week in prison.”
Heather said her husband was accused of staging an illegal campaign rally on May 29 in Grodno for jailed opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky, despite never being in Grodno, which he said. had never met Tikhanovsky and was with her at his home in Arlington, Virginia. , to this date. “His only offense was that, in his role as political analyst and Harvard Fellow, he had written articles publicly criticizing President Lukashenko’s administration, ”she said.
Tikhanovsky is a popular Belarusian vlogger who was barred by authorities from running in the August 9 elections. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, registered for the election in her place and has since gone from being a self-proclaimed “housewife” without political ambitions to that of heroes of the trembling protests Belarus and Lukashenko’s grip on power.
Last week, Tikhanovskaya told BuzzFeed News in an interview from Vilnius, Lithuania, where she lives in exile was forced to flee her country of origin, that she is the “chosen national president” of Belarus, despite Lukashenko’s claim that he was re-elected with more than 80% of the vote against 10%. While the United States refrained from recognizing her as the winner of the election, it said the election was not free and fair.
In his appeal with reporters last week, Biegun said Lukashenko had been “clearly rejected by his own people” and was now using his notoriously abusive security forces to back himself up, with some backing from Russia. Biegun said the United States was coordinating with its allies in the EU and discussing possible sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.
According to Heather, Vitali traveled to Belarus on July 9, with the couple’s 8-year-old son, simply to visit his mother, who has advanced cancer, and to celebrate her birthday on July 11 with her family and children. friends. She said she stayed with her daughter to pack the family’s home for their move to Kiev.
After arriving in Belarus, Vitali was forced to do a two-week quarantine with his parents. “He did not leave the house during this period. Shortly after the end of his quarantine and the authorization to go out, he was arrested by Belarusian security services on July 29, ”Heather said. “He was not arrested during a rally or a public demonstration, but rather in a market in his hometown of Gomel, where he had gone to buy a watermelon for his mother, wearing a T-shirt. , shorts and flip flops.
She said he was arrested on the street, thrown into a van and driven 300 km northwest to a detention center in Minsk, while their son stayed with his grandmother.
“To this day, he has courageously refused to admit crimes he did not commit, and so he remains in prison,” she added. “He should be released immediately and cleared of the baseless charges that have been brought against him.”