By Charles Maynes
A U.S. consular official says her Belarusian-American husband’s life is in “immediate danger” after security forces in Belarus arrested him in July.
Vitali Shkliarov, 44, a political analyst who holds a U.S. diplomatic passport, was detained while visiting his elderly parents in his hometown of Gomel ahead of Belarus’s highly charged August 9 presidential elections, recounts his wife, Heather Shkliarov, in a letter released to news media.
“Vitali traveled to Belarus on July 9, along with our 8-year-old son, simply to visit his mother, who is suffering from advanced cancer, and to celebrate his birthday on July 11 with his family and friends,” writes Shkliarov, who says she stayed behind in the United States to prepare the family’s move to Ukraine as part of a new assignment to the U.S. embassy in Kyiv.
Vitali Shkliarov was arrested July 29 after having finished a two-week quarantine at his parents’ house due to the coronavirus.
“He was grabbed off the street, thrown into a van, and driven 300 kilometers to a detention center in Minsk, while our son was left in the custody of his grandmother, without either of his parents,” recounts Heather Shkliarov in her statement.
As he was being detained, Shkliarov managed one quick message on his popular Russian-language Telegram channel: “arrested.”
Authorities accuse him of working with jailed opposition blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski to sponsor “group actions that grossly violate public order.”
He is the husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, President Alexander Lukashenko’s main election rival, who is now in Lithuania. She argues the longtime Belarusian leader rigged the vote to remain in power.
In her statement, Heather Shkliarov disputed that her husband was involved in campaigning at all.
Heather Shkliarov says her husband was charged with the crime of organizing an illegal campaign rally on May 29 in Grodno, Belarus, for jailed opposition leader Siarhei Tsikhanouski, despite never having been to Grodno or having met Tsikhanouski. She also notes her husband was at home with her in Virginia at the time of the May rally.
“Vitali is suffering this fate not because he was a protestor or involved in any way in the presidential election in Belarus,” she added.
“His only offense,” she notes, was that “he had written articles that publicly criticized the administration of President Lukashenko.”
A prolific political commentator on events in America and the former Soviet Union, Shkliarov’s writings have appeared in Foreign Policy magazine and Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta, among other publications.
He has also worked on presidential campaigns in Russia, Georgia, and the United States, where he was a field organizer for both President Barack Obama’s reelection bid in 2012 and Senator Bernie Sanders’s failed presidential run in 2016.
Shkliarov’s lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, says Lukashenko has exploited that political experience in an effort to portray a wave of protests against his government as a Western-backed plot.
The argument has been key to shoring up critical Russian support for Lukashenko’s government as the democratic uprising has grown in numbers and authorities have resorted to mass arrests.
“Vitali has become a convenient scapegoat for Lukashenko’s security forces,” said Gashinsky in an interview with VOA.
“He ideally fits the picture that they’re trying to draw: foreigners came from abroad to organize a revolution.”
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Belarus to release Shkliarov and “all those who have been unjustly detained” amid a police crackdown.
Heather Shkliarov’s press release said, “The views expressed in this statement are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.”
The view from inside
Vitali Shkliarov has detailed a grim existence since his detention last month.
“Like any person daring to criticize an authoritarian regime, I understood you can’t swear off prison. But when they arrested me, I didn’t expect that I would fall into a totalitarian torture chamber,” Shkliarov wrote in a statement released last month.
“No, they don’t beat me. But they’re trying to break me. With everything they have,” he added.
Heather Shkliarov’s statement backed those assertions, arguing her husband was being exposed to “extreme psychological pressure” to force a confession.
“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,” she writes.
“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.”
His wife also expressed growing concerns over his health in the COVID-19 era.
“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.”
Gashinsky, the lawyer, tells VOA prison authorities relented to requests for medical care and a doctor administered an initial test for COVID-19 on Wednesday.
It was not clear when results would come available, he added.