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An American diplomat warns that the health of her Belarusian American husband is in “immediate danger” after his arrest in late July by the security forces of authoritarian Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Vitali Shkliarov, political analyst and double citizen who worked on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, was arrested while visiting his parents in his hometown of Gomel, Belarus, on the eve of the elections presidential elections of August 9 in the country. his wife, Heather Shkliarov, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Vitali traveled to Belarus on July 9 with our 8-year-old son, just to visit his mother, who suffers from advanced cancer, and to celebrate his birthday on July 11 with his family and friends,” indicates the press release. .
She remained in Virginia to prepare for the family’s move to Ukraine as part of her new assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, where she is a consular officer.
Her husband’s troubles began as he headed to a local market, after a mandatory two-week home quarantine due to the coronavirus.
Security officers threw him into a van and drove him to Minsk, some 370 kilometers away. Shkliarov managed to send a quick message on his popular Telegram social media channel: “Arrested.”
He was later accused of organizing an illegal campaign rally for opposition blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky – the imprisoned husband of Lukashenko’s opponent in the primary elections, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Shkliarov has previously denied working for the campaign. Heather Shkliarov notes that her husband was at his home in Arlington, Virginia the day the alleged illegal gathering took place.
Shkliarov says her husband has been subjected to “extreme psychological pressure and deprived of basic physical freedoms” in prison, with the guards constantly moving him to overcrowded cells. The lights are on 24 hours a day and the loud music “blows all night” to disrupt sleep.
“He was subjected to extreme strip searches, forced to remain naked in a cell for hours at a time, and was never even allowed to sit on his bed during the day,” she wrote.
She also expresses growing concerns about her potential exposure to COVID-19.
“On September 8, Vitali started to feel extremely ill,” she wrote, “and for several days in a row reported a fever of over 102 degrees, along with breathing problems, chills and muscle aches. . “
Her husband’s lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, told NPR that Shkliarov received an initial test for COVID-19 on Wednesday, although it is not known 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 suffers this fate not because he was a protester or because he was involved in any way in the presidential election in Belarus,” said the statement by Heather Shkliarov.
Her husband’s only offense, she said, was that he had written articles criticizing Lukashenko.
“To this day, he has bravely refused to admit crimes he did not commit, so he remains in prison.
View of a revolution
Shkliarov’s detention came against the backdrop of a wave of mass protests calling on Lukashenko to step down after the Belarusian strongman claimed an unlikely landslide victory in the August elections.
Gashinsky says his client’s US citizenship made him a “hostage” in Lukashenko’s broader efforts to portray the uprising as a West-backed plot – an argument Lukashenko made to Russian President Vladimir Putin this week as he sought reassurance about the Kremlin’s critical support for his regime. .
“Vitaly fits ideally with Lukashenko’s theory of outside influence on protests,” Gashinksy says. “Here is an American political spin-doctor born in Belarus that they can directly associate with the protest movement.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior State Department officials have called for the release of Shkliarov and others “unjustly detained” by Lukashenko.
A State Department official who did not want to be named told NPR that consular officials have had four visits to Shkliarov since his arrest – the last on September 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 US government.”
A commitment to basic politics
A political commentator on events in America and the former Soviet Union, Chkliarov’s writings appeared in Foreign police magazine and independent from Russia Novaya Gazeta, among other publications. He was recently a fellow at the Davis Center for Russia and Eurasian Studies at Harvard.
But Shkliarov has also made a name for himself working on presidential campaigns in Russia, Georgia and the United States – where he worked as a volunteer for President Obama in 2012 and as a field staff organizer for the US Senator. Vermont Bernie Sanders in 2016.
He went on to serve as a campaign advisor to liberal candidates in Georgia and Russia – including Socialist Ksenia Sobchak’s failed candidacy against Putin in 2018.
He said his interest in popular politics was sparked by watching Obama deliver a landmark speech in the summer of 2008 in Berlin.
“So imagine you growing up with communist bullshit and brainwashed on TV,” Shkliarov said, “and then it’s like, what’s going on? Why didn’t my country there no politicians or ideas like that? “
Michele Kelemen of NPR contributed to this story.