A dual American Belarusian citizen and political strategist who has worked for presidential candidates in the United States has been languishing in a jail in Minsk, Belarus, for nearly two months. Vitali Shkliarov has been abused and denied medical treatment after showing COVID-19–like symptoms while in custody, according to his wife.
Heather Shkliarov, a US State Department employee, wrote in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News through her lawyer that she is growing concerned about the physical health and psychological well-being of her husband, who was arrested by Belarusian security services in the western city of Grodno on July 29. Vitali stands accused of organizing an illegal campaign rally, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison if convicted.
“Vitali has been subjected to extreme psychological pressure and deprived of basic physical liberties in what he has told his lawyer is an attempt to get him to incriminate himself,” Heather said in her first comments about her husband’s situation. While she has not been allowed to meet or speak directly with Vitali since his arrest, she has learned of his situation through notes the couple has been able to pass each other and through his lawyer, who has access to him in jail.
Heather said her husband’s health is also in immediate danger.
“On September 8, Vitali started feeling extremely ill, and for several days in a row, has reported a fever of over 102 degrees, along with respiratory issues, chills, and muscle pains. The prison authorities have refused to give him a COVID-19 test or to treat him for his fever, which can only be seen as a further attempt to weaken his psychological will in order to extract a false confession,” she said.
It is unusual for an active US diplomat to speak out publicly in this way — that task is typically left for top State Department officials. Speaking with reporters last week, US Deputy 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 Sept. 8 statement denouncing the abduction of Belarusian opposition leaders.
But Pompeo and Biegun said little else on the matter and did not specify what efforts were being made to release him.
Heather did not say she was 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 Department of State or the US government,” she wrote. But two US diplomats focused on Europe said her decision was viewed by some within the halls of the State Department as an attempt to spur Pompeo into greater action.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with a reporter, the US diplomats told BuzzFeed News that some State Department employees have expressed frustration over what they have felt to be a lack of action from the secretary of state in Vitali’s case. One of the diplomats called the public statements from Pompeo and and Biegun “run-of-the-mill.”
Vitali, who holds a US diplomatic passport, worked on the presidential campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders and former president Barack Obama in 2016 and 2012, respectively. That work, his Belarusian heritage, and his US citizenship may have made him a target of Lukashenko’s security forces.
Belarusian authorities have detained thousands of protesters who have spilled into the streets of cities across the country to challenge what they believe was a government-rigged election to extend dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year rule. Amid the crackdown, stories emerged from dozens of protesters about abuse and torture by Lukashenko’s feared riot police and KGB security service agents.
The 66-year-old Lukashenko has called Belarusians protesting against him “rats” and has been seen stomping around his presidential palace wearing riot gear and carrying an assault rifle. Without evidence, he has tried to paint the uprising as a Western-backed coup attempt, with people coming from abroad to help with organizing. On Monday, he met with 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 passed by his lawyer on Aug. 7 that he had been crammed into an overcrowded cell inside a damp basement with mold and cockroaches. In a follow-up letter shared with BuzzFeed News last month, he likened being in a Belarusian jail to the Soviet Union’s gulag, where political prisoners were sent. “They try to break me using all means,” he said.
But, with her sttement, Heather painted the grimmest picture yet of what life has been like for her husband inside the Belarusian detention center over the course of nearly seven weeks.
“He is moved constantly from cell to cell to avoid having a sense of stability. The lights are never turned off in his cell, and loud music is blared all night so he is not ever able to sleep properly. He is only allowed to bathe with a bucket of warm water on Wednesdays. He has been subjected to extreme strip searches, forced to stand naked in a cell for hours at a time, and never allowed even to sit down 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 treat,” she said.
Heather said she has been unable to speak directly with Vitali since his arrest.
“At first we were allowed to pass notes in Russian through his attorney, but they accused him of trying to smuggle notes to me in English and stopped allowing him to write to me,” she said. “I am allowed to pass notes to him through the consular officer in Minsk, who was recently allowed to start visiting Vitali weekly in prison.”
Heather said her husband was charged with organizing an illegal campaign rally on May 29 in Grodno for jailed opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky, despite the fact that he has never been to Grodno, has never met Tikhanovsky, and was with her at home in Arlington, Virginia, on that date. “His only offense was that, in his role as a political analyst and Harvard fellow, he had written articles that publicly criticized the administration of President Lukashenko,” she said.
Tikhanovsky is a popular Belarusian vlogger who was barred by authorities from running in the Aug. 9 election. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, registered for the election in his place and has since gone from being a self-described “housewife” with no political ambitions to becoming a hero of the protests shaking Belarus and Lukashenko’s grip on power.
Last week, Tikhanovskaya told BuzzFeed News in an interview from Vilnius, Lithuania, where she is living in exile have being forced to flee her home country, that she is the “national, chosen president” of Belarus, despite Lukashenko’s assertion that he won reelection with more than 80% of the votes versus her 10%. While the US has stopped short of recognizing her as the winner of the election, it has said the election was not free and fair.
In his call 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 prop himself up, with some support from Russia. Biegun said the US was coordinating with its allies in the EU and discussing possible sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime.
According to Heather, Vitali traveled to Belarus on July 9, along with the couple’s 8-year-old son, simply to visit his mother, who has advanced cancer, and to celebrate his birthday on July 11 with his family and friends. She said she stayed behind with her daughter to pack up the family’s house in preparation for their move to Kyiv.
After his arrival in Belarus, Vitali was obligated to do a two-week quarantine at his parents’ house. “He did not leave the house during this time. Shortly after his quarantine was over and he was allowed to go outside, he was detained by Belarusian security services on July 29,” Heather said. “He was not arrested at a rally or a public protest, but rather at 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 grabbed off the street, thrown into a van, and driven 186 miles northwest to a detention center in Minsk, while their son was left with his grandmother.
“To this day, he has bravely refused to admit to crimes that he did not commit, and so he remains in jail,” she added. “He should be released immediately and cleared of the baseless charges that have been brought against him.”