The dark side of Ecuador ‘asylum’
Less than a year ago, an Ecuadorean judge denied a request to extradite Aliaksandr Barankov to Belarus, the former Soviet bloc nation whose president has been nicknamed “Europe’s last dictator”.
But now, the former financial crimes investigator is in imminent danger of losing his political refugee status and being sent home, where he claims he could be killed because he had unearthed corruption at the highest levels of government.
Mr Barankov’s fate could be decided at some point this week, only days after Ecuador granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, painting itself as a proud haven for the politically persecuted.
The Belarusian’s case indicates that hospitality may be limited by geopolitics.
Prosecutors in Belarus accuse Mr Barankov, 30, of fraud and extortion. He claims the charges are trumped up retribution for his having exposed a petrol-smuggling ring involving senior officials of president Alexander Lukashenko’s government, including relatives of the leader.
Mr Barankov is backed by rights activists at home, where Mr Lukashenko has ruled for 18 years by fixing elections, crushing free speech, jailing dissidents and keeping 80 per cent of industry in state hands.
“They accuse me of fraud and corruption,” Mr Barankov said by phone from prison. “It’s easy to accuse [someone] of this because the police, courts and prosecutors are employees of the president and his family.”
Mr Barankov arrived in Ecuador in August 2009 after fleeing the charges, which he said were filed after he uncovered the smuggling ring. Belarus has been trying to extradite him ever since.
In 2010, when he overstayed his visa, he was imprisoned for 55 days but was freed after authorities granted him refugee status, finding merit in his claim of political persecution.
Belarus continued to press for his extradition, but Judge Carlos Ramirez of Ecuador’s highest court, the National Court of Justice, denied it in October 2011, finding the evidence of his alleged crimes inadequate.
Then, on 7 June, after a revised extradition request from Belarus, Mr Barankov was arrested by 15 police officers who seized him from his home in a middle-class area of northern Quito.
Later that month, Mr Lukashenko visited Ecuador for two days, signing deals on trade, education, agriculture and the eventual exchange of diplomats with president Rafael Correa.
A preliminary defence co-operation agreement was also signed. “Everything changed after Lukashenko came,” Mr Barankov said by phone from Quito’s century-old main prison. “I want Ecuadoreans to open their eyes and see what’s happening to me.”
One court official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “He cannot be condemned to death or to life in prison because there is a signed guarantee from the Belarusian government that assures us of this. The guarantee was delivered during Lukashenko’s visit.”
Mr Barankov’s Ecuadorean girlfriend, Mabel Andrade, said this week that they had been “relaxed until President Lukashenko came”.
“Immediately afterward, Ecuadorean authorities didn’t want to renew his ID card and they wouldn’t give us any explanation.” She said they had appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing a fear of torture or even death.
Ecuadorean court records confirm that Mr Barankov was a financial crimes investigator.
In the Belarusian capital of Minsk, an interior ministry official said Mr Barankov was a former police officer but refused to say what job or responsibilities he had. The official said Mr Barankov was accused of summoning people to his office, telling them they were being investigated and extorting bribes to close non-existent cases.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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