An American detained in Belarus ahead of the country’s disputed August presidential elections arrived safely to the United States on Wednesday after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appealed for his release, his lawyer tells VOA.
Vitali Shkliarov, a Belarusian-American political analyst who worked on past political campaigns of former President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders, was detained by state security agents while visiting his parents in Grodno July 28.
Authorities charged Shkliarov with helping organize illegal rallies for a member of the opposition ahead of the August 9th election — a vote that Lukashenko claims he won in a landslide but has been widely seen as rigged to maintain the leader’s 26-year hold on power.
Tens of thousands of Belarusians have since joined in a popular uprising — and braved a police crackdown, in an effort to bring a peaceful end to Lukashenko’s rule.
Lukashenko argues demonstrators are backed by Western powers and has pointed to Shkliarov’s arrest as proof of direct American interference.
Yet the circumstances of Shkliarov’s release hinged on a call from Secretary Pompeo to Lukashenko last Saturday — the first publicly known high-level talks between the two sides since the political crisis in Belarus began.
"The secretary called for the full release and immediate departure from Belarus of wrongfully detained US citizen Vitali Shkliarov and reaffirmed US support for the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus," a State Department spokesperson said at the time.
Shkliarov’s lawyer, Anton Gashinsky, tells VOA his client quickly submitted a request to exit the country pending trial.
“The fact that they approved his request is without question a result of Pompeo’s call,” says Gashinksy in an interview from Minsk.
“They saw that to keep him in custody was toxic for the country and for the authorities. And they made the right decision,” he added.
“The United States welcomes the departure from Belarus of wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov,” said Pompeo in a statement released Wednesday. “As the President and I have made clear, we will not tolerate foreign governments wrongfully detaining U.S. citizens.”
Gashinsky confirmed to VOA that Shkliarov is now in Washington undergoing medical treatment from coronavirus-related symptoms but would ultimately return to Belarus to appear in court once healthy.
“He is innocent and when he comes back we’ll fight together to get the charges dropped,” Gashinsky said.
If found guilty of the charges, Shkliarov faces up to three years in prison and fines.
An Abrupt Transfer
Shkliarov’s release and subsequent return to the U.S. marked the latest in a series of recent twists to the circumstances of his detention.
He was abruptly transferred from the KGB security service prison to house arrest earlier this month — a move that allowed him a visit from his elderly mother, currently recovering from cancer treatments.
The gesture followed a surprise visit by Lukashenko to the detention facility to meet with jailed opposition figures to discuss “constitutional reforms.”
Two other businessmen in the meeting were released following the meeting — a move the opposition portrayed as an attempt to divide protesters’ loyalties.
Shkliarov had complained of poor health and psychological pressure while in prison.
In letters smuggled from prison, he described overcrowded cells and delays in getting screened for the coronavirus.
His wife Heather Shkliarov, an American consular official based at the US Embassy in Kyiv, issued a public appeal for his release due to concerns over his health last month.
He later tested positive for antibodies from the coronavirus.
A prolific political commentator on events in America and the former Soviet Union, Shkliarov’s writings have appeared in Foreign Policy magazine and Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta, among other publications.
He has also worked on presidential campaigns in Russia, Georgia, and the United States, where he was a field organizer for both President Barack Obama’s reelection bid in 2012 and Senator Bernie Sanders’s failed presidential run in 2016.
That political experience has played into Lukashenko’s efforts to portray the protests as a Western-backed plot.
The argument has been key to shoring up critical Russian support for Lukashenko’s government as the democratic uprising has grown in numbers and authorities have resorted to mass arrests.