A Belarusian-American political strategist who has worked on the campaigns of former U.S. President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders has been subjected to "extreme psychological pressure" in a Minsk jail, his U.S. diplomat wife said.
Vitali Shkliarov's health is also in "extreme danger," Heather Shkliarov said in a September 15 letter distributed to media.
Shkliarov was detained by Belarusian security agents in the eastern city of Homel in late July, just 10 days before the country’s August 9 presidential election that gave authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term with a landslide victory widely viewed as rigged.
Prosecutors accuse Shkliarov of organizing an illegal campaign rally on May 29 in the western city of Hrodna, for blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski to register as a candidate in the election.
Tsikhanouski was himself detained prior to the election; his wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, then stood for election in his place and has since become a leading Belarusian opposition figure.
On August 7, Belarusian prosecutors charged Tsikhanouski with organizing mass disorders. He could get up to three years in prison if convicted.
Shkliarov’s family and lawyer say he was visiting relatives in rural Belarus.
Describing her husband as a "political prisoner," Heather Shkliarov said that her husband has never been to Hrodna, a city located some 600 kilometers from his hometown of Homel, has never met Tsikhanouski, and was in the United States on May 29.
"Vitali is suffering this fate not because he was a protestor or involved in any way in the presidential election in Belarus. 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 Lukashenka," his wife wrote.
The State Department employee, who is currently stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, described how security forces picked her husband off the street in Homel and took him to a detention facility in Minsk, where he has languished under harsh and inhumane conditions.
"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. 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," Heather Shkliarov said of her husband's experience.
"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 wrote.
In a first-person statement released through his lawyer in early August, Vitali Shkliarov likened his conditions to that of the Soviet gulag prison camps, and he said his jailers were trying to pressure him psychologically.
In recent days, Shkliarov has been experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, including high fever, respiratory problems, chills, and muscle pain. His lawyer says his jailers are refusing to test him for COVID-19.
"Vitali's health is also in immediate danger," his wife said. “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.”
In a public statement on September 8 condemning human rights abuses in Belarus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specifically named Vitali Shkliarov, calling his detention unjust and saying he should be released immediately.