Kiev – Belarus on Friday accused a former campaign worker for Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama of organizing an illegal political rally for the candidate against the country’s authoritarian president in Sunday’s elections, its lawyer told BuzzFeed News.
Vitali Shkliarov, a 44-year-old Belarusian national who has an American diplomatic passport as the spouse of a US diplomat, is being held for “group actions that seriously violate public order,” according to Shkliarov’s lawyer.
Lawyer Anton Gashinsky said the authorities also claim that Shkliarov violated the “legitimate claims of government officials, causing disruption to traffic, businesses, institutions and organizations”.
If convicted, Shkliarov could face a fine or a prison sentence of up to three years, or both, under the criminal code under which he is charged.
In his first communication with Western media since his incarceration, Shkliarov denied the charges, telling BuzzFeed News of Gashinsky that he saw the charges as retaliation for his public criticism of President Alexander Lukashenko.
The prison and charges against Shkliarov are the latest crackdown on the notoriously persistent Belarusian authorities ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections.
Neither the Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor the Belarusian authorities immediately responded to requests for comments.
More than 1,300 people, including journalists and election observers, were arrested prior to the election, according to human rights group Viasna. 33 Russian military contractors who are alleged to have attempted to destabilize the country were also arrested.
Authorities claim that Shkliarov was responsible for organizing an event on May 29 in the western Belarusian city of Grodno, where popular vlogger Sergei Tikhanovsky collected signatures for his wife Svetlana to run for president.
Tikhanovsky was arrested at the event and remains in jail while his wife launched an extraordinary campaign that brought Belarusians together, BuzzFeed News told BuzzFeed News they were hungry for change after 26 years under the iron rule of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko was charged with human rights abuses by international watchdogs during his five terms in office. International election observers viewed all but his first election victory as manipulated. This year the government banned outside observers from watching the vote.
Shkliarov runs a popular Telegram channel on which he publishes analysis of political events in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. A week before his imprisonment, he beat Lukashenko for his use of “populism and brute force” in a column published by Forbes Russia.
Shkliarov, a fluent English speaker and self-described political junkie, lives in Washington with his wife but travels frequently to Eastern Europe. His last campaign work was in 2018 when he served as senior advisor to Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian socialist who lost the election to President Vladimir Putin.
Shkliarov worked on Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign as director of mobilization for Nevada and President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, where he led a team of around 40 organizers, according to CNN.
Shkliarov told BuzzFeed through his lawyer that he was in his hometown of Gomel with his son to visit his mother and father with cancer when he was jailed on July 29th. He had just left the family home to buy a watermelon.
He said he did not get far before agents from the Belarusian KGB Security Service “kidnapped” him and took him to a remand prison in Minsk. He only had enough time to send a word to followers on his Telegram social media channel: “Arrested”.
On July 31, the Deputy Prosecutor General of the country ordered Shkliarov to remain in custody, according to Gashinsky.
Since then, Shkliarov said through his lawyer, he has changed prison cells several times and endured terrible conditions. In one case, he said he was crammed into an overcrowded cell in a damp basement with mold and cockroaches and inmates who constantly smoked.
Gashinsky has filed complaints about Shkliarov’s detention and the conditions under which he is being held, but said they were ignored by authorities.
Little public mention was made of Shkliarov in Belarus until Thursday, when Lukashenko made public statements by the Belta news agency about a US passport holder who had been taken into custody. “Some people were arrested with American passports, married to Americans and worked in the State Department,” said Lukashenko, probably referring to Shkliarov.