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A US diplomat warns that the health of her Belarussian American husband is in “immediate danger” following his arrest in late July by security forces of the authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Vitali Shkliarov, a political analyst and dual citizen who worked on both Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns, was detained while visiting his parents in his hometown of Gomel, Belarus, during the country’s presidential election on August 9, his wife, Heather Shkliarov , said in a statement released Tuesday.
“Vitali traveled to Belarus on July 9 with our 8-year-old son, simply to visit his mother, who suffers from advanced cancer, and to celebrate his birthday on July 11 with his family and friends,” the statement said.
She stayed behind in Virginia to prepare for the family’s move to Ukraine as part of her new assignment to the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, where she is serving as a consular official.
Her husband’s problems began when he went to a local market after a two-week mandatory home quarantine due to coronavirus.
Security agents threw him in a van and drove him to Minsk – about 370 miles away. Shkliarov managed to send a quick message on his popular Telegram social media channel: “Arrested.”
He was later accused of arranging an illegal campaign meeting for opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky – the imprisoned man of Lukashenko’s opponent in the primary election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Shkliarov previously denied having worked for the campaign. Heather Shkliarov notes that her husband was at home in Arlington, Va., On the day the alleged illegal gathering took place.
Shkliarov says her husband has been under “extreme psychological pressure and deprived of basic physical freedoms” in prison, with guards constantly moving him among overcrowded cells. Light is kept around the clock, and loud music “blisters all night” to disturb sleep.
“He has been subjected to extreme strip searches, forced to stand naked in a cell for hours at a time and has never even been allowed to sit down on his bed during the day,” she writes.
She also expresses growing concern about his potential exposure to COVID-19.
“On September 8, Vitali began to feel extremely ill,” she writes, “and has for several days in a row reported fever of over 102 degrees along with respiratory problems, chills and muscle aches.”
Her husband’s lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, tells NPR that Shkliarov received an initial test for COVID-19 on Wednesday, although it is unclear when the results will be available. Shkliarov claims to have lost his sense of smell and taste, Gashinsky says, but remains in a general cell with other prisoners.
“Vitali is suffering from this fate, not because he was a Protestant or in any way involved in the presidential election in Belarus,” Heather Shkliarov said in a statement.
Her husband’s only offense, she says, was that he had written articles criticizing Lukashenko.
“To this day, he has bravely refused to admit crimes he did not commit, and therefore he remains in prison.”
Look for a revolution
Shkliarov’s detention has unfolded amid a wave of mass protests calling for Lukashenko to step down after Belarus’s strongman claimed an unlikely landslide victory in the August election.
Gashinsky says his client’s US citizenship has taken him “hostage” in Lukashenko’s major efforts to portray the uprising as a Western-backed plot – an argument Lukashenko made to Russian President Vladimir Putin this week as he sought assurances about critical Kremlin backing for its regime.
“Vitaly fits in perfectly with Lukashenko’s theory of outside influence on the protests,” Gashinksy says. “Here is an American political spin doctor born in Belarus who they can tie directly to the protest movement.”
Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo and other senior Foreign Ministry officials have called for the release of Shkliarov and others “unfairly detained” by Lukashenko.
A Foreign Ministry official who did not want to be named told NPR that consular officials have received four visits to Shkliarov since his arrest – the last on 9/11.
Heather Shkliarov’s statement notes that “the views expressed in this statement are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the United States Government.”
A commitment to grassroots policy
A political commentator on the events in America and the former Soviet Union, Shkliarov’s writings, has appeared in Foreign policy magazine and Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta, among other publications. He was a recent fellow at the Harvard Davis Center for Russia and Eurasian Studies.
But Shkliarov also got his name working on presidential campaigns in Russia, Georgia and the United States – where he volunteered for President Obama in 2012 and as a field staff organizer for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016.
He later served as a campaign adviser to liberal candidates in Georgia and Russia – including socialist Ksenia Sobchak’s failed bid against Putin in 2018.
He has said his interest in grassroots politics was triggered by watching Obama give a milestone speech in the summer of 2008 in Berlin.
“So imagine you grow up on some brainwashed, communist shit on TV,” Shkliarov said, “and then it’s like that, what happens? Why does my country not have politicians or ideas like this?”
NPRs Michele Kelemen contributed to this story.