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A brutal regime exposed. The case of Vitali Shkliarov

On July 29th Belarusian security agents in Minsk seized Vitali Shkliarov, a Belarusian-born US political strategist and critic of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s authoritarianism. As he was being taken, he managed to make a one-word post on Telegram: “Arrested”.

September 23, 2020 - Anastasiia Starchenko - Hot Topics

Vitali Shkliarov / Telegram

Note from the Editors: Vitali Shkliarov has been illegally detained in Belarus since late July, being treated brutally in detention with very little contact with the outside world. This indisputable violation of human rights is just one of hundreds of such cases currently taking place in the country. Vitali’s case hits even closer to home for us at New Eastern Europe as Vitali has written for us on several occasions, including his last analysis published shortly before he was illegally arrested. In this small gesture of solidarity with Vitali, we hope that by publishing this piece we can grow awareness of the horrible conditions experienced by those who want a better future for their country. We call for the immediate release of Vitali and all other political prisoners and protesters illegally detained in Belarus. Жыве Беларусь!

Vitali Shkliarov is a Belarusian-American political commentator and strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns in the United States, Russia and Georgia. In late July, Shkliarov was detained by Belarusian security agents during a family visit in his hometown of Homel in the run up to the country’s August 9th presidential election. He was charged with organising an illegal campaign rally for blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, the jailed husband of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s primary election opponent, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, on May 29th in the western city of Hrodna, some 600 kilometres from Homel.

“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”, his wife, US diplomat Heather Shkliarov, wrote in a widely-distributed statement pleading to release Vitali from jail. Constantly moved from one overcrowded cell to another, Vitali has been exposed to inhumane conditions, physical and psychological torture: “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”, the statement said.

Most importantly, his health appears to remain in immediate danger: “On September 8th, Vitali started feeling extremely ill, and for several days in a row, has reported a fever of over 102 degrees [38.88 Celsius], along with respiratory issues, chills, and muscle pains. 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”.

According to Heather, Vitali has never been to Hrodna, has never met Tsikhanouski, and was in the United States on May 29th. “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 criticised the administration of President Lukashenka”, she said, referring to her husband as a “political prisoner”.

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New Eastern Europe has spoken with Anton Hashynski, Vitali Shkliarov’s lawyer.

NEW EASTERN EUROPE: What condition is Vitali in today? Do you manage to visit him?

ANTON HASHYNSKI: Vitali Shkliarov remains in serious but stable condition. First, he has a broken toe. Second, we suspect that he might be infected with COVID-19. He’s been having a high fever for the whole week; his senses of taste and smell have disappeared. He stays in a shared cell, without quarantine, but he was allowed bed rest. Vitali has lost a lot of weight. His toe has almost healed, but still doesn’t bend. He is psychologically depressed, disoriented, anxious, and constantly worried about his wife, son and mother. Vitali’s mother has cancer; she needs urgent surgery. He feels helpless in his inability to help his family. His letters to his family never reach them.

What, in your opinion, was the motivating factor in Vitali’s illegal detention and arrest? It seems that it’s not only about his criticism against the authoritarian regime.

According to Vitali, he is persecuted exclusively for political reasons. He hasn’t committed any crimes. In May 2020 he was in the United States and physically could not take part in any unauthorised activities in Belarus. Vitali believes that his detention was politically expedient for the authorities to shift the vector of rhetoric from the Russian trace in Belarusian protests to the United States’ involvement, a narrative that was later confirmed. Shkliarov’s public speeches, as well as his entire life, are being scrutinised by law enforcement agencies to create a portrait of an American spy whose task was to destabilise the situation in Belarus. Vitali believes that as a US citizen, a Belarusian native with strong family ties to his homeland, fits perfectly into the role assigned to him in the “play” titled: “Seven stages of the scenario to destroy Belarus”, voiced by Lukashenka on September 16th, 2020.  

What has Vitali been charged with?

At the moment, Vitali Shkliarov is accused of committing a crime under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal code of the Republic of Belarus, i.e., of the organisation of group actions, grossly violating public order and involving obvious disobedience to the legitimate demands of the authorities, punishable with imprisonment for a term of up to three years. Final charges have not been brought against Vitali; his actions may be re-qualified into a heavier criminal article. Vitali’s detention period expires on September 29th, after which he will either be released or kept in custody.

Do you think there’s any hope for changing the preventive measure or providing necessary medical assistance?

Every week, the defence files complaints about the conditions of Vitali’s detention, requires immediate medical assistance and has repeatedly requested to change the preventive measure. However, our complaints are being ignored; Vitali’s condition remains serious.

What the international community together with Vitali’s colleagues can realistically do to help him?

You can help with public support. The more people stand up for Vitali, demanding to stop criminal prosecution and rehabilitate him, the better the chances that the common sense will prevail.

Anastasiia Starchenko is an editorial intern at New Eastern Europe and a recent MA graduate of European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin. She has a BA in Law from the Ukrainian Academy of Banking and a BA in International Relations from Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia.

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