Ecuador protects Belarus refugee Aliaksandr Barankov

 

A judge on Ecuador's highest court has thrown out an extradition request for a former police investigator from Belarus who has been jailed since June, ordering him to be freed immediately.

Aliaksandr Barankov's case drew attention after Ecuador granted political asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange earlier this month.

Judge Carlos Ramirez of the National Court of Justice found the political refugee status granted Mr Barankov to be justified, according to a court official.

Mr Barankov, 30, had argued he could be killed if sent back to his former Soviet bloc homeland, whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been nicknamed "Europe's last dictator".

Mr Barankov says he fled Belarus after uncovering an oil-smuggling ring involving senior government officials including relatives of Lukashenko.

"I'm happy. They saved my life!" an overjoyed Mr Barankov said by phone from jail, moments after his Ecuadorian girlfriend had told him of the judge's decision.

His release is expected as early as today.

The ruling was the second by Judge Ramirez rejecting an extradition request from Belarus. The first was in October last year, when he found the evidence presented against Mr Barankov to be inadequate.

Mr Barankov blamed his jailing in early June on pressure from Belarus before an official visit later that month by Lukashenko, who has ruled his homeland for 18 years by fixing elections, quashing free speech, jailing dissidents and keeping most industry in state hands.

The extradition request under which he was arrested and jailed on June 7 accused him of fraud and extortion. Mr Barankov was backed by human rights activists in Belarus.

His case came under scrutiny when Ecuador announced it was granting Mr Assange asylum, deeming he ran the risk of being unfairly tried by the United States and possibly facing the death penalty.

President Rafael Correa said he would not comment on the Barankov case until the court ruled. But his deputy foreign minister said the government would treat the case with the same respect for human rights that guided it in considering Mr Assange's asylum request.

Mr Barankov's lawyer, Fernando Lara, said that while he welcomed the ruling, it came "82 days late" because his client should never have been jailed.

Mr Barankov was granted refugee status in 2010, with merit found in his claim of political persecution, after he had been jailed 55 days for overstaying his visa.

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