Published August 21, 2012
QUITO, Ecuador – 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 says he could be killed because he unearthed corruption at the highest levels of government.
Barankov's fate could be decided as early as Tuesday, less than a week after Ecuador granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, painting itself a proud haven for the politically persecuted.
The Belarusian's case indicates that hospitality may be limited by geopolitics.
Prosecutors in Belarus accuse the 30-year-old Barankov of fraud and extortion. He calls the charges bogus, retribution for his having exposed a petroleum-smuggling ring involving senior officials of President Alexander Lukashenko's government, including relatives of the leader.
Barankov is backed by rights activists at home, where Lukashenko has ruled for 18 years by fixing elections, quashing free speech, jailing dissidents and keeping 80 percent of industry in state hands.
"They accuse me of fraud and corruption," Barankov said by phone from prison Friday. "It's easy to accuse (someone) of this because the police, courts and prosecutor's office are employees of the president and his family."
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 Barankov's alleged crimes inadequate.
Then, on June 7, after a revised extradition request from Belarus, Barankov was arrested by 15 police officers who hauled him from his home in a middle-class neighborhood of northern Quito.
Later that month, Lukashenko visited Ecuador for two days, signing agreements on trade, education, agriculture and the eventual exchange of diplomats with President Rafael Correa. A preliminary defense cooperation agreement was also signed. Under Correa, Ecuador has been deepening commercial and political ties with U.S. rivals including Iran, Russia and China.
"Everything changed after Lukashenko came," Barankov said by phone from Quito's cold, overcrowded century-old Prison No. 1. "I want Ecuadoreans to open their eyes and see what's happening to me."
An official at the National Court of Justice said that Ramirez could rule as early as Tuesday on the new extradition request and that Barankov could lose despite his refugee status.
It would then be up to Correa to decide whether he is extradited.
A phone call to the presidential press office Monday seeking comment was not returned. Nor were calls to the Justice Ministry and Foreign Ministry seeking clarification for why the government was allowing the extradition to go forward.
"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," said the court official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official was not authorized to make statements to the press.
Barankov's Ecuadorean girlfriend, Mabel Andrade, told The Associated Press: "We were more or less 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 Barankov was a financial crimes investigator.
In the Belarusian capital of Minsk, an Interior Ministry official said Barankov was a former police officer but refused to say what job or responsibilities he had. The official, who refused to be quoted by name, said Barankov was accused of summoning random people to his office, telling them they were being investigated and extorting bribes to close non-existent cases.
The Ecuadorean court papers say he allegedly attempted to extort employees of Total Oil, demanding payments of up to $60,000 on at least eight occasions.
Yelena Krasovskaya-Kasperovich from the Minsk-based human rights organization Platforma told the AP that Barankov asked for the group's help and that they had spoken to him several times via Skype.
She said Barankov "didn't say a word about the nature of the secrets he's in possession of." He only said that the information he has is "explosive" and concerns Belarusian senior officials, she said.
"The persistence with which Belarusian authorities are demanding Barankov's extradition is alarming," Krasovskaya-Kasperovich said. "This might be the proof that he does know Lukashenko's secrets."
"In this case, it's very dangerous for him to be in Belarus," she said.
Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.