KYIV – Belarus accused a former campaign staff member of Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama on Friday of staging an illegal political rally for the candidate running against the country’s authoritarian president in Sunday’s election, his lawyer said at BuzzFeed News.
Vitali Shkliarov, a 44-year-old Belarusian citizen who, as the wife of an American diplomat, holds an American diplomatic passport, is being detained on account of “group actions which seriously violate public order”, according to the Shkliarov’s lawyer.
The lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, said the authorities also allege that Shkliarov violated the “legitimate demands of government officials, resulting in disruption of transport, businesses, institutions and organizations.”
If convicted, Shkliarov could be fined or jailed for up to three years, or both, depending on the criminal code under which he is charged.
In his first contact with Western media since his detention, Shkliarov denied the charges and told BuzzFeed News through Gashinsky that he believed the charges were retaliation for his public criticism of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Chkliarov’s imprisonment and indictment are the latest in a crackdown by notoriously authoritarian Belarusian authorities before Sunday presidential election.
Neither the State Department nor Belarusian authorities immediately responded to requests for comment.
More than 1,300 people, including journalists and election observers, were arrested ahead of the poll, according to the Human rights group Viasna. Thirty three Russian military contractors accused of attempting to destabilize the country were also arrested.
Authorities claim Shkliarov is responsible for organizing an event on May 29 in the town of Grodno, western Belarus, where popular vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky was collecting signatures for his wife, Svetlana, to attend to the presidency.
Tikhanovsky was arrested at the event and remains in prison, while his wife has continued to build an extraordinary campaign that has rallied Belarusians who told BuzzFeed News they were thirsty for change after 26 years under the rule of the iron fist of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko has been accused by international monitoring bodies of human rights violations during his five terms. International election observers considered everything but his first election victory to be rigged. This year, the government banned outside observers from observing the vote.
Shkliarov runs a popular Telegram channel where he publishes analysis on political events in the United States, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. A week before his detention, he also criticized Lukashenko for his use of “populism and brute force” in an column published with Forbes Russia.
Shkliarov, who speaks fluent English and describes himself as a political junkie, is based with his wife in Washington, but travels frequently to Eastern Europe. His most recent campaign work took place in 2018, when he was a senior adviser to Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian socialite who later lost the election to President Vladimir Putin.
Shkliarov worked on Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign as the mobilization director for Nevada and on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, in which he led a team of some 40 organizers, according to CNN.
Shkliarov told BuzzFeed news through his lawyer that he was in his hometown of Gomel with his son to visit his mother, who has cancer, and his father when he was detained July 29; he had just left the family home to buy a watermelon.
He said he did not get far before agents from the KGB security services in Belarus “kidnapped” him and took him to a pre-trial detention center in Minsk. He only had time to send a note to subscribers of his Telegram social media channel: “Stopped. “
On July 31, the country’s deputy attorney general ordered Shkliarov to remain in pre-trial detention, according to Gashinsky.
Since then, Shkliarov said through his lawyer, he has changed cells several times and endured horrific conditions. In one case, he said he was crammed into an overcrowded cell inside a damp basement with mold and cockroaches, along with inmates who were constantly smoking.
Gashinsky lodged complaints about Shkliarov’s detention and the conditions under which he is being held, but said they were ignored by authorities.
Little had been mentioned publicly about Shkliarov in Belarus until Thursday, when Lukashenko in public remarks broadcast by the Belta news agency spoke of a US passport holder who had been taken into custody. “Some people have been detained with American passports, married to Americans, working at the State Department,” Lukashenko said, probably referring to Shkliarov.