US Diplomat Begs Belarus To Launch Husband Vitali Shkliarov
A dual Belarusian American citizen and political strategist who worked for US presidential candidates has been languishing in a prison in Minsk, Belarus for almost two months. According to his wife, Vitali Shkliarov was ill-treated and refused medical treatment after showing symptoms similar to COVID-19 while in custody.
Heather Shkliarov, a U.S. State Department official, wrote about her attorney in a statement to BuzzFeed News that she was increasingly concerned about the physical health and mental well-being of her husband, who was arrested by Belarusian security services in the western city of Grodno, Dec. . July. Vitali is charged with organizing an illegal campaign event, a crime that can be punished with up to three years in prison if convicted.
“Vitali was exposed to extreme psychological pressure and deprived of basic physical freedoms, what he told his lawyer is in an attempt to get him to incriminate himself,” Heather said in her first few comments on her husband’s situation. Although she has not been allowed to meet or speak to Vitali directly since his arrest, she learned of his situation through notes that the couple could happen to each other and through his lawyer who has access to him in prison.
Heather said her husband’s health was also in imminent danger.
“On September 8th, Vitali felt extremely ill and reported several days in a row about a fever of over 102 degrees as well as breathing problems, chills and muscle pain. Prison authorities have refused to give him a COVID-19 test or treat him for his fever, which can only be seen as another attempt to weaken his psychological will to get a false confession, “she said.
It is unusual for an active US diplomat to speak publicly in this way – this task is usually left to high-ranking State Department officials. US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun spoke to reporters last week and urged the Belarusian authorities to release all detained protesters. He specifically said: “Vitali Shkliarov must be released.” State Secretary Mike Pompeo also mentioned Vitali by name in a September 8 statement denouncing the kidnapping of Belarusian opposition leaders.
But Pompeo and Biegun said little else on the matter and did not indicate the efforts made to get him released.
Heather didn’t say that she is now speaking out 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. However, two U.S. diplomats focused on Europe said their decision was viewed by some in the State Department halls as an attempt to encourage Pompeo to take bigger action.
On condition of anonymity for not having the authority to speak to a reporter, the U.S. diplomats told BuzzFeed News that some State Department officials have expressed frustration at what they perceived to be the lack of action by the Secretary of State in Vitali’s case . One of the diplomats described the public statements by Pompeo and Biegun as “normal”.
Vitali, who holds a US diplomatic passport, worked on the presidential campaigns of Senator Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama in 2016 and 2012. This work, his Belarusian heritage, and his US citizenship may have made him a target for Lukashenko’s security forces.
Belarusian authorities have arrested thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets of cities across the country to question what they believe to be a government-rigged election to extend the 26-year rule of dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Amid the action, dozens of demonstrators showed up about abuse and torture by Lukashenko’s feared riot police and KGB security agents.
The 66-year-old Lukashenko called the Belarusians protesting against him “rats” and was seen trudging through his presidential palace with riot gear and an assault rifle. Without evidence, he has tried to portray the uprising as a West-backed coup attempt, with people from abroad coming to help organize. On Monday he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, where the two were discussing closer integration, and Lukashenko claimed he was facing a military threat from the West.
Vitali told BuzzFeed News in a letter from his attorney on Aug. 7 that he was crammed into an overcrowded cell in a damp basement with mold and cockroaches. In a follow-up letter shared with BuzzFeed News last month, he compared himself in a Belarusian prison to the Soviet Union’s gulag, to which political prisoners were sent. “They are trying by all means to break me,” he said.
But with her demeanor, Heather painted the grimest picture yet of what her husband’s life was like in the Belarusian detention center for almost seven weeks.
“It is constantly being moved from cell to cell to avoid a feeling of stability. The lights are never turned off in his cell and loud music is played all night so that he can never sleep properly. He is only allowed to bathe with a bucket of warm water on Wednesdays. He was subjected to extreme strip searches, had to stand naked in a cell for hours, and was not even allowed to sit on his bed during the day. He has a badly broken toe caused by an incident that he cannot describe even to his own lawyer and that the prison does not want to deal with, ”she said.
Heather said she has not been able to speak to Vitali directly since he was arrested.
“At first we were allowed to give notes in Russian through his lawyer, but they accused him of trying to smuggle notes in English to me and stopped allowing him to write to me,” she said. “I am allowed to send him notes through the consular officer in Minsk who was recently allowed to visit Vitali every week in prison.”
Heather said her husband was accused of organizing an illegal rally for imprisoned opposition leader Sergei Tikhanovsky in Grodno on May 29, although he had never been to Grodno, never met Tikhanovsky and was at her home in Arlington, Virginia, was on that date. “His only offense was that, in his role as a political analyst and a Harvard Fellow, he wrote articles publicly criticizing President Lukashenko’s administration,” she said.
Tikhanovsky is a popular Belarusian vlogger who was banned by the authorities from participating in the August 9 elections. His wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, signed up for the election and has since gone from being a self-described “housewife” with no political ambitions to a heroine in the protests that shook Belarus and Lukashenko’s grip on power.
Last week, in an interview from Vilnius, Lithuania, where she lives in exile and was forced to flee her homeland, Tikhanovskaya told BuzzFeed News that she is the “national elect president” of Belarus, despite Lukashenko claiming he will be re-elected won with more than 80% of the vote versus their 10%. While the US has stopped recognizing her as the election winner, it has said that the election was not free and fair.
In his call to reporters last week, Biegun said Lukashenko was “clearly rejected by his own people” and is now using his notoriously abusive security forces to support himself with Russia’s assistance. 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 with the couple’s 8-year-old son on July 9, simply to visit his mother who has cancer and celebrate his birthday with family and friends on July 11. She said she stayed behind with her daughter to pack up the family home and prepare to move to Kiev.
After arriving in Belarus, Vitali was obliged to conduct a two-week quarantine in his parents’ home. “He didn’t leave the house during that time. Shortly after his quarantine ended and he was allowed to go outside, he was arrested by Belarusian security services on July 29, “said Heather. “He wasn’t arrested at a rally or public protest, but at a market in his hometown of Gomel where he bought a watermelon for his mother who was 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 her son was left with his grandmother.
“To date, he has valiantly refused to admit to crimes he did not commit and therefore remains in prison,” she added. “He should be released immediately and cleared of the baseless charges that have been brought against him.”