American Diplomat Demands Release of Husband Held in Belarus

An American diplomat in Ukraine is demanding that Belarus release her husband, a dual U.S.-Belarusian citizen whom she argues was detained for writing articles critical of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Heather Shkliarov’s statement, issued Tuesday, was an unusual move because it broke with precedent in which diplomats leave such statements to senior State Department officials. Both Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and his deputy, Stephen Biegun, have called for Vitali Shkliarov’s release.

“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 Shkliarov wrote in the statement, which she said didn’t necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government. She said her husband, detained in Belarus on July 29, was suffering symptoms consistent with Covid-19 such as fever and chills.

Vitali Shkliarov was arrested days before a presidential election in which Lukashenko, an autocrat who has been in power since 1994, won 80% of the vote with his most prominent challengers forced off the ballot. The opposition had managed to unite behind a little-known candidate and the outcome provoked widespread demonstrations and demands for Lukashenko’s resignation.

He countered with a sweeping security crackdown. But the protest movement took on a life of its own. Foreign governments objected to the way the election was conducted and the harsh response to the rallies and demonstrations.

The crackdown led the Trump administration to drastically scale back efforts from recent years to strengthen ties with Belarus despite Lukashenko’s poor human-rights record. Pompeo became the first secretary of State in 26 years to visit the country when he traveled to Minsk in February, and the U.S. has also nominated an ambassador to Belarus after years of leaving that post vacant.

Heather Shkliarov is the deputy consul general in Kyiv. She said she had only recently taken up that post when her husband was arrested while visiting his mother with their young son.

A State Department spokesperson, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said the U.S. had repeatedly raised its concerns over Shkliarov’s detention and that U.S. consular officers have visited him four times, most recently last Friday.

On a trip to Vienna last month, Biegun demanded Shkliarov’s release, saying the U.S. has “no higher priority than the protection of American citizens falsely accused and held prisoner for crimes they did not commit.”

Pompeo echoed those demands earlier this month and threatened sanctions “to promote accountability for those involved in human rights abuses and repression in Belarus.”

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