The former aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders locked up in a Belarusian jail is being pressured to confess to crimes he didn’t commit, his wife says.
Vitali Shkliarov, 44, has been kept in squalid conditions and refused medical treatment despite showing symptoms of COVID-19, his wife, Heather Shkliarov, who works for the U.S. State Department, said in a letter sent to VICE News through her lawyer.
“Since his detention, 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,” Heather wrote. “To this day, he has bravely refused to admit to crimes that he did not commit, and so he remains in jail.”
Vitali Shkliarov grew up in Belarus before moving to the U.S. and working on the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Former President Barack Obama. But he was swept up in the country’s brutal crackdown on critics of dictator Alexander Lukashenko, whose regime now faces its greatest challenge ever from widespread protests after last month’s blatantly fraudulent elections.
Heather Shkliarov’s damning letter marks a rare public accusation against a foreign country from an active, rank-and-file State Department employee. Public diplomacy is typically left to senior department officials in the heat of a sensitive bilateral diplomatic dispute, like the release of an imprisoned U.S. citizen.
Yet Heather Shkliarov’s letter goes much further, in tone and urgency, than the brief public statements issued on her husband’s behalf by top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Her letter details a litany of mistreatment and warns that Vitali’s physical and mental health are rapidly deteriorating while he remains in custody.
“He is moved constantly from cell to cell to avoid having a sense of stability,” Heather Shkliarov wrote. “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. 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.”
In a letter passed through his attorney to VICE News last month, Vitali Shkliarov said his treatment amounts to torture.
“They’re trying to break me,” Vitali wrote. “But I haven’t lost hope of freedom—for all of us.”
Belarusian authorities accuse Vitali of organizing an illegal campaign rally in the city of Grodno for jailed opposition leader Sergiy Tikhanovsky on May 29, a charge that could land Vitali in prison for three years.
Heather rejected the accusations outright. Vitali has “has never been to Grodno, has never met Tikhanovsky, and was with me at our home in Arlington, Virginia, on May 29,” she wrote.
She said Vitali traveled to Belarus “simply” to visit his mother, who is suffering from advanced cancer. After observing an obligatory two-week self-quarantine, Vitali stepped out to buy his mother a watermelon, dressed in shorts and flip flops. He was grabbed off the street on July 29, and driven 300 kilometers to a detention center, Heather wrote.
Heather said she believes Belarusian authorities are refusing to give Vitali medical treatment to further pressure him to admit to crimes he didn’t commit.
“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,” she wrote.
“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.”
Heather includes a note specifying that her letter is personal, not an official State Department missive.
“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,” she wrote.
Cover: Heather and Vitali Shkliarov, courtesy of Heather