QUITO, Ecuador — As he sits down for a coffee, Aliaksandr Barankov asks to borrow a cell phone to call his girlfriend, to whom he’s only just said goodbye moments earlier. “Don’t worry, everything’s fine,” he tells her before hanging up to explain their nerves.
“I’ve seen three Belarusians,” the softly spoken former police inspector says. “They say they’re diplomats but I’m not so sure … My country doesn’t stop.”
Barankov’s country — the former Soviet republic of Belarus — wants him extradited from Ecuador to face fraud allegations that he denies. Belarus’s pursuit is backed by an Interpol international arrest warrant.
But last Tuesday, a court in Ecuador refused Belarus’s extradition request for Barankov. It reaffirmed his refugee status and freed him after he spent 84 days in a Quito jail.
The case draws parallels with that of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder wanted in Sweden, who was also offered asylum by Ecuador. Like Assange, Barankov has worked to expose government secrets. Although Assange remains holed up in the South American country’s London embassy, where he has said he could spend up to a year. Today in Ecuador, 30-year-old Barankov is free to roam and is even recognized on the streets.
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Barankov fled Belarus in July 2009, after he uncovered illegal oil smuggling across his country’s borders — according to his lawyer —in which he alleges the country’s president, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, and close associates were involved.
Lukashenka is often referred to as the “last dictator” in Europe and Barankov is terrified of his government’s KGB, the national intelligence agency of Belarus.
“I don’t feel safe,” he says. “The KGB is so dangerous. Now, when this situation is hot, they won’t do anything. They’ll wait.”
International media focused on what would have been Ecuador’s hypocrisy if it had granted Belarus’ extradition request. After all, had Barankov been forced back to Belarus, he says, his life would be in danger. In Ecuador’s other major asylum case, Julian Assange fears that should he be extradited by the UK to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning over sex crimes allegations, he could then be sent to the United States to face charges over WikiLeaks’ 2010 publication of secret US cables.
Assange’s lawyer, Baltasar Garzon, has told reporters he will ask US authorities whether his client is under investigation there.
“There are serious indications of retaliation from the country or countries that produced the information published by Mr. Assange; retaliation that could endanger his safety, integrity and even his life,” Ricardo Patino, Ecuador’s foreign minister, said, according to the BBC.
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Barankov and his lawyer view the media pressure as having helped their case along.
“I’m certain that he would have been extradited were it not for the case of Assange,” says Fernando Lara, Barankov’s lawyer, speakingin his office in downtown Quito. Barankov is less forthright, lest talking politics jeopardize his status here. “I can’t criticise Ecuador because when I was in jail, I asked Ecuador to protect me, and Ecuador accepted my case.”
It was a long journey to the small South American country for Barankov and it is only three years into his time here that he finally has legal status as a refugee confirmed, after two spells in an Ecuadorean jail.
“When I saw so many secret service cars coming for me,” says Barankov, about the day in July 2009 he fled his home city of Minsk, “I realized they would stop me at the traffic lights, so I sped off. I ran five red lights.”
The fugitive drove more than 500 miles to Moscow, crossing the border quickly and selling his car for parts for some quick cash.
Barankov spent just over a week in Moscow. “I understood that I couldn’t stay in Russia too long because the KGB could find me. They’d put me in a car and they’d take me back to Minsk without any process of extradition,” he says.
A few days later Barankov was in Hurghada, Egypt, having plucked it from a list of countries that Belarusians could enter without a visa. “I investigated in which countries I could ask asylum,” he says. “I saw that Ecuador respects human rights and gives many people refuge.”
Two days short of Egypt’s month-long tourist visa running out, Barankov flew to Quito. Ecuador is popular with those seeking refuge thanks to its lenient immigration laws. It has the largest refugee population in Latin America, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
It wasn’t plain sailing when Barankov arrived here in August 2009. Speaking no Spanish and going broke, he was forced to stay in a $5 a night hostel in the Mariscal area popular with tourists.
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In June 2011, after meeting a girlfriend and beginning to settle, Barankov was arrested for overstaying his visa.
“I have good self-defense training,” says Barankov, of his first night in jail, “but with five big men sharing a cell with me, I was scared. I didn’t think I’d wake up again.”
Meanwhile, Barankov said his mother and father in Minsk had received threats from Belarusian authorities.
“[The government] offered to send me some money to return to Minsk where they would put me in jail for a short time though guarantee my life. I didn’t believe them,” he says, adding that they also threatened to have him killed here.
Within two months, Barankov was released and granted refugee status. But then, a year later in June, President Lukashenko was due to visit Ecuador, so Barankov grew nervous.
“I knew I would be arrested again,” he says. Just weeks before Lukashenko’s visit, he found himself in jail again.
Now, Barankov brandishes a brand new refugee card. He proudly points toward the issue date, Aug. 31, before cryptically offering a high five.
It is Lukashenko’s birthday. That irony is a small one-up on a president that Barankov believes will continue to taunt him.