With his right thumb held high to acquaintances still behind bars, a tired but relieved Alexander Barankov walked out of the grim, panopticon-style García Moreno jail overlooking the Ecuadorean capital’s historic old town on Wednesday afternoon. Dressed in a gray hoodie, blue jeans, sneakers and carrying a black Reebok gym bag, the boyish, 30-year old former Belarusian army captain flashed a slightly trembling victory sign to photographers after winning the fight against an extradition request by his home country that had kept him behind bars for 84 days.
His release came almost two weeks after Ecuador’s government granted the world-famous Australian founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, asylum in its embassy in London. “When I needed refuge two years ago, Ecuador gave it to me. Assange is in the same situation, he needs help and Ecuador also gave it to him,” he said in Spanish after stepping past the black steel gate. He also thanked the media for covering his story. Dozens of people, mostly women and children, meanwhile waited to enter the infamous jail to visit friends and relatives. Some complained to the two dozen reporters waiting for Barankov’s release that guards and some prisoners mistreated inmates constantly.
(PHOTOS: A Lawsuit in Ecuador)
When Ecuador gave Assange asylum on Aug. 16, foreign minister Ricardo Patiño argued that the former hacker faced a risk of a political persecution and even the death penalty were he extradited from Sweden to the U.S. for helping to make public hundreds of thousands of classified Pentagon and State Department documents. Two months earlier, Assange had fled to the embassy, jumping bail, after losing a fight in UK courts to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning for alleged sexual abuse. His Spanish lawyer Baltasar Garzón, famous for his request to have former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet extradited to Spain from the UK, has said that Assange would be willing to face prosecution questioning but that he fears that, without explicit guarantees, he could be “rendered” to the U.S. under espionage charges. Sweden however has made clear even in a Spanish translation that, as established in domestic and European Union law, it won’t extradite anyone who could face the death penalty.
The same day of Patiño’s announcement, TIME helped break the news of Barankov’s potential extradition to a country considered Europe’s last dictatorship. While Ecuador has granted more than 56,000 people refugee status, mostly Colombians, global media quickly questioned Barankov’s possible extradition because of Belarus’s dismal track record on human rights. The outpouring of articles in local and international media suggesting government duplicity angered populist president Rafael Correa, who has received widespread criticism from human rights organizations for demanding millions of dollars in damages in libel suits against reporters and editors as well as for a continual attack on what he calls “corrupt” private media. “They already told us we’re contradictory because it turns out there’s a captain here, a Belarusian with an unpronounceable name, who’s in jail,” Correa said on August 26. “Believe me I found out about that from the paper” and the case was in the hands of the judicial system, not his, he added in his weekly nationwide television and radio broadcast. The reports, he charged, aimed at unfairly portraying his government in a poor light, “it’s not to see if Ecuador is right in giving Julian Assange asylum, if England acted well or badly, Sweden acted well or badly, no, it’s to attempt to delegitimize Ecuador” he said. Any final decision on Barankov would have been in his hands however because Ecuadorean law calls for the president’s signature on any extradition order.
While Belarus wants Barankov for alleged fraud, extortion, and bribery, he denies the charges, claiming that he fled his home after having uncovered a network of corruption close to the president and setting up a Belarusian-language blog to criticize President Alexander Lukashenko. Ecuador’s national court of justice (CNJ), the top court, in October 2011 dropped a first extradition request because Belarus couldn’t submit the full paperwork within deadlines, including official translations into Spanish, according to Barankov’s laywer, Fernando Lara. CNJ president Carlos Ramírez ordered his release, leaving the door open however to a resumption of the extradition attempt. That came June 7 as Ecuador prepared to welcome Lukashenko, who is barred from traveling to the European Union. Ramírez himself issued the arrest warrant, and 17 elite policemen arrested Barankov at home, according to Lara. Additionally, the arrest should never have happened given that the Inter-American convention on human rights prohibits the extradition of individuals recognized as refugees—Barankov’s status since 2010. While Ecuadorean judges commonly grant suspects time out of jail before trial, they didn’t allow Barankov any alternative to staying behind bars. The justice ministry has denied any discrimination.
Barankov isn’t high on any Western list of threatened dissidents, according to diplomats. He is likely to refrain from lambasting the Lukashenko regime in the immediate future to protect his family, he told reporters. “I have to think about it right now because I don’t want more trouble for my family.” His parents have already fled from Belarus to Moscow, according to his partner Mabel Andrade.
Nevertheless, sending him to Minsk would have been too much of a controversy for Correa’s government to bear. This month, Ecuador’s ambassador to Sweden was called in for a tongue lashing in Stockholm because top Ecuadorean officials had ridiculed the Swedish justice system. The CNJ was impatient to get the news out that it was denying Belarus request for extradition, tweeting it out even before informing Barankov’s lawyer Lara. “It couldn’t have happened without the media,” said a grateful Andrade before slowly following a lead car with Barankov and Lara in a gray Kia SUV through the crowds of people and food stalls on the road winding downhill from the prison. Whether Assange will enjoy similar liberty soon is another matter entirely.
In another twist to Ecuador’s ongoing asylum saga however, Ecuadorean newspaper columnist Emilio Palacio announced in Florida on Thursday that the U.S. had granted him asylum. Palacio had accused Correa, with little if any evidence, of ordering his security forces to fire on civilians at a hospital during a 2010 police uprising. Though that wasn’t journalism’s finest moment — even Reporters Without Borders called the column libelous — Correa invited an international outcry by having Palacio and his editors and publisher tried for defamation in criminal instead of civil court. They were convicted and sentenced to prison time and a combined $40 million (under global pressure, Correa pardoned them this year), but Palacio fled to Miami.