A Former Bernie Sanders Aide Says He’s Being Tortured in Belarusian Jail: 'They're Trying to Break Me'

Vitali Shkliarov is among thousands locked up in dismal conditions while "Europe’s last dictator" scrambles to remain in power.
Twitter/Alec Luhn
Twitter/Alec Luhn

A former top campaign aide to Bernie Sanders says he’s being tortured in a Belarusian jail.

Vitali Shkliarov, 44, was swept up in the country’s brutal crackdown on critics of dictator Alexander Lukashenko, whose 26-year-old regime is facing its greatest challenge ever from widespread protests of this month’s blatantly fraudulent elections.

Shkliarov, who grew up in Belarus, was arrested in late July by the country’s notorious KGB security service and accused of organizing anti-government riots. The authorities may ultimately hand him as much as 15 years in prison, depending on the exact charges they decide to bring, his attorney told VICE News. At the moment, the charges against him could bring three years.


Shkliarov, who is married to a U.S. State Department employee, obtained U.S. citizenship and carries an American diplomatic passport, according to his attorney.

Now, he’s among thousands locked up in dismal conditions while Lukashenko, the strongman known as “Europe’s last dictator,” scrambles to remain in power by clamping down on anyone who opposes him.

“They’re trying to break me,” Shkliarov wrote in a letter sent to VICE News by his lawyer in Belarus, Anton Gashinsky, which also outlined harsh treatment doled out by his jailers. “But I haven’t lost hope of freedom — for all of us.”

Shkliarov has said he decided to enter politics after hearing former U.S. President Barack Obama speak in Berlin in 2008. After moving to America, he began making volunteer phone calls from the basement of a Washington DC Democratic party office, then rose up the ranks of Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign to become Deputy National Political Outreach Director.

He has also worked on political campaigns in Russia. But he denies attempting to organize unlawful demonstrations in Belarus this summer, and says he was visiting the country to see his mother, who’s suffering from cancer, according to his attorney.

Shkliarov was grabbed off the street by the KGB after leaving his mother’s apartment to buy a watermelon, Gashinsky said. He has written articles criticizing Lukashenko, and they may be the real reason for his arrest, the lawyer said.


In his letter, Shkliarov said he feels as if he’s entered a time machine that’s sent him back to the infamously brutal GULAG prison system of the Soviet Union.

He was recently forced to stand in a one-square-meter (3.3-square-foot) room for six hours after a meeting with his lawyer, he wrote. The hard iron bed in his cell is too short for him, and his legs have swollen to the point where he can’t fully extend them. Bright lights and the constant clanking of heavy iron doors and locks keep him awake at night.

Lying down on the bed during the day is forbidden, he wrote.

“Getting enough sleep is impossible: it’s painful and bright,” he wrote.

He was initially held in a filthy, overcrowded room with 15 or 20 other inmates, his lawyer said on Friday, although he’s now being kept in a cell with one other person.

Unlike other prisoners in Belarus, Shkliarov says he hasn’t been physically beaten. But he said the dismal conditions, lack of sleep, and threats of punishment for minor infractions like failing to shave, add up to torture.

“In 2020, this can and should be regarded as torture,” he wrote. “Torture for freedom of speech, for having the wrong views, and for writing articles about the presidential elections.”

Lukashenko has alluded to Shkliarov’s arrest as evidence of a darker international plot against him, without providing any proof.

“Some people were detained with American passports, married to Americans, working in the State Department,” Lukashenko said in early August, in apparent reference to Shkliarov, according to the country’s Belta news agency.

But there are signs that the strongman’s iron grip on his country may be slipping, as the protests against his regime have grown in size.

On Sunday, the largest protest rally in modern Belarusian history shook the country’s capital of Minsk with an estimated 100,000 people.

Cover: Vitali Shkliarov in 2016 (​Twitter/Alec Luhn)