One in, one out - Belarusian dissident's refugee status in Ecuador at risk

By bne IntelliNews August 23, 2012

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Just days after Ecuador granted asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from alleged political persecution at the hands of the US government, Quito is reportedly on the verge of cancelling the same for a former Belarusian official who claims he could be killed if he returns to his native Minsk.

Former financial crimes investigator Aliaksandr Barankov fled Belarus after unearthing corruption at the highest levels of government, and arrived in Ecuador in August 2009. After his findings were published, the government of President Alexander Lukashenko issued an arrest warrant for the whistle blower, with prosecutors accusing the 30-year-old of fraud and extortion.

Barankov claims to have uncovered a petroleum smuggling ring that includes several senior officials, as well as some of the president's relatives. Belarus has been trying to extradite him ever since Quito offered him sanctuary. In October 2011, a judge denied a request to extradite Barankov, finding the evidence of his alleged crimes inadequate.

The situation changed in June however, when Lukashenko visited Ecuador for two days, signing agreements on trade, education, agriculture and the eventual exchange of diplomats with President Rafael Correa. A preliminary defence co-operation agreement was also signed. That month, after a revised extradition request from Belarus, Barankov was arrested, and Ecuadorean authorities denied to renew his residency permit, without explanation.

The Ecuadorian National Court will rule on the new extradition request on August 28, and observers worry that there is a significant risk that Barankov's refugee status will be revoked. It would then be up to president Correa to make a final decision on his extradition.

Under Correa, Ecuador has been deepening commercial and political ties with US rivals, including Iran, Russia, Belarus and China. Critics say Ecudor's decision to grant Assange asylum is intended to offset negative perception of Correa in the wake of accusations that he has been clamping down on the independence of the media, as well as to irritate the US and its allies.

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