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A Tale Of Two Political Refugees: Ecuador May Revoke Asylum Of Belarusian Emigre

An Interpol picture of Alyaksandr Barankou, who is wanted in Belarus on bribery and fraud charges.
An Interpol picture of Alyaksandr Barankou, who is wanted in Belarus on bribery and fraud charges.
On the face of it, Julian Assange and Alyaksandr Barankou appear to be world's apart.

The world-famous Assange, founder of the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, is regularly featured on the front pages of the major international newspapers.

On the other hand, until recently not many people had even heard of Barankou, who fled his native Belarus three years ago.

Now, however, Barankou is regularly mentioned in connection with the notorious Australian because both have been granted political asylum by Ecuador.

But while Quito has vowed to stick to its pledge of asylum for Assange, despite pressure from Great Britain and Sweden, Barankou might not be so fortunate.

Assange, who is wanted by Sweden to face rape allegations, sought refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London two months ago and was granted political asylum earlier this week. He later made a statement from the embassy balcony that was broadcast around the world. He is still on the embassy premises.

According to various accounts, Barankou, 30, was a member of the Belarusian security forces who says he was seeking to expose corruption among some of the country's senior officials.

He was granted political asylum in Ecuador in 2010.

But just a few weeks before Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka visited the South American country on June 28, Barankou was detained. He now sits in a jail in the capital, Quito, awaiting a court decision on a new extradition request from Belarusian authorities.

Barankou, whose name is also sometimes spelled Barankov, told Ecuadorean reporters after an August 9 court hearing that he fears his life would be in danger if he were sent back to Belarus -- the only European country which still uses the death penalty.

"If they extradite me I will face torture and a death sentence," he said. "I don't stand a chance."

Barankou arrived in Ecuador in 2009 after escaping from Belarus, where he had been charged with bribery and fraud and put on the Interpol's wanted list.

He chose Ecuador because he did not need a visa to travel there.

Disputed Claims

Barankou’s story remains blurry. It is unclear where exactly he worked before fleeing Belarus, and what position he held in the country's security forces.

His Ecuadorean girlfriend, Mabel Andrade, told RFE/RL that he worked in the army but was also part of a body that looked into government corruption.

Belarusian authorities, however, maintain that Barankou is a common criminal.

"[Barankou] extorted bribes from businessmen," Belarusian KGB spokesman Alyaksandr Antanovich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

"[Barankou and accomplices] gathered compromising material on businessmen," he added. "He told them they were being investigated and asked them to pay up if they wanted to see those investigations closed. In the end he made several hundred thousand dollars doing that because there were many such cases."

Alena Krasouskaya of the Minsk-based human rights group Platforma told RFE/RL that while Barankou asked for the organization's support, he did not reveal what kind of information he possesses.

But she maintained that the Belarusian authorities' persistence in seeking his extradition is proof that he does have "certain information."

Closer Diplomatic Ties

Belarus’s renewed efforts to extradite Barankou come as Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa has been seeking closer ties with countries such as Iran, China, and Russia.

It was perhaps no surprise, therefore, that Lukashenka stopped off in Ecuador while making a visit earlier this summer to his Latin American allies Cuba and Venezuela.

According to the official statement from the visit, Lukashenka and Correa agreed to strengthen military, trade, and diplomatic ties. There was no mention in the official statement of Barankou’s name or any extradition request.

However, Barankou’s lawyer, Fernando Lara, insists that his client's detention was directly connected to Lukashenka's visit.

Lara told RFE/RL that a Belarusian government delegation had been sent to Ecuador in parallel, working to secure Barankou's extradition.

"When Barankou had his hearing [on August 9] there was a mission of the government of Belarus present which had been in Ecuador in advance of President Lukashenka's visit [on June 28]," he said. "They said in the hearing they had a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they had a meeting at the president's office and that they were protesting the designation of Barankou as a political refugee."

Andrade, Barankou’s girlfriend, has appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) -- the rights branch of the Organization of American States (OAS) -- saying he faces torture and even the death penalty if sent back to Belarus.

A source familiar with the matter confirmed to RFE/RL that the IACHR had received such an appeal that could result in its recommending that Ecuador should refuse to extradite Barankou.

Andrade has not given up hope that the Ecuadorean court will not send Barankou back.

"All national and international laws are with Alyaksandr now," she said. "He is a refugee and can't be extradited. I don't know -- I hope there will be justice in this case and that the court decides not to extradite him and that Ecuador continues giving him the protection it gave him for two years and that political pressure does not endanger his refugee status.”

The court was due to render a decision in the case within three days after the August 9 hearing. So far no decision has been announced.

RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service contributed to this report

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