The U.S. government declared for the first time Wednesday that an American citizen detained in Belarus for nearly a year has been "abused" in prison.

The citizen, Emanuel Zeltser, is a Russian-born lawyer from New York who was arrested in Minsk last March following a trip overseas to pursue a legal and financial dispute with billionaire Russian "oligarch" Boris Berezovsky. 

Supporters of Zeltser allege Berezovsky arranged to have him spirited out of London on a private plane and transported to Minsk against his will. Last August, Zeltser was tried and convicted in a closed-door Belarusian trial on espionage and other charges, at which Berezovsky testified, and sentenced to three years in prison.

A State Department spokesman told FOX News the Obama administration has urged Belarusian authorities to release Emanuel Zeltser immediately on humanitarian grounds. A Web site dedicated to Zeltser's release, www.saveemanuelzeltser.com, says the prisoner requires heart surgery that is unavailable in Minsk, and that he will die of cardiac arrest if he is not sent to an American hospital soon.

Well known in New York legal circles, Zeltser has testified before Congress and appeared as a guest commentator on FOX News. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have taken up Zelter's case, but to no avail in Belarus, which is the last Soviet-style dictatorship in Europe.

On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Andrew Laine disclosed to FOX News that U.S. embassy officials in Minsk have been, as part of their regular consular access to Zeltser, formally "protesting [his] abuse in prison." Laine said U.S. diplomats have also sought to ensure "appropriate medical treatment for [Zeltser's] serious conditions."

On January 22, a State Department attorney met with Belarusian officials in Minsk to respond to questions they had about American contacts with Zeltser. Trent Duffy, a former White House aide to former President Bush and now a principal at HDMK, a Washington PR firm retained by Zelter's supporters, welcomed Laine's statement as the U.S. government's "toughest condemnation yet" of the treatment accorded Zeltser. 

"This is the first time the Obama administration has spoken on it," Duffy added.

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).