Ecuador and the Sanctity of Political Asylum

While driving this morning, I heard a piece on NPR about Ecuador granting asylum to Julian Assange for historical reasons more than for any particular allegiance to Assange. While I can’t find a link to the piece online, the speaker made the (ultimately accurate) point that, during the military regimes of the 1950s-1980s, political opposition to military rule often survived by seeking asylum in foreign embassies.

While the speaker (whose name I did not catch) did not get into details, the point certainly is relevant to the recent Latin American experience. Historically speaking, hundreds if not thousands of Brazilians (including student leader José Serra) sought refuge in asylums before going into exile in Chile and elsewhere; likewise, when the Pinochet regime overthrew democratically-elected President Salvador Allende in 1973, thousands more people (including many Brazilians who had initially fled to Chile after 1964) again turned to embassies and political asylum to escape arrest, torture, and even assassination at the hands of military-led states. So in that regard, the speaker was right – the issue of political asylum is a major one in recent Latin American history, responsible for keeping thousands of people opposed to and targeted by military regimes that committed wide-scale human rights violations alive. Indeed, as late as 2009, Manuel Zelaya escaped arrest by taking asylum in Brazil’s embassy in Honduras.

However, Ecuador’s sincerity on defending the sanctity of political asylum is apparently already being tested:

Aliaksandr Barankov, a former financial crimes investigator from Belarus, is in imminent danger of losing that status and being sent home, where he says he is afraid he will be killed because he has denounced corruption at the highest levels of government.

Barankov, 30, faces an Ecuadorean judge’s ruling as early as Tuesday on an extradition request from Belarus, where prosecutors accuse him of fraud and extortion. Barankov contends he uncovered a petroleum-smuggling ring involving senior officials of President Alexander Lukashenko’s government, including relatives of the leader.

He calls the criminal charges against him bogus, and is backed by rights activists in the former Soviet bloc nation, which Lukashenko has ruled since 1994. His government has been condemned for election fraud, represses opposition groups and independent news media, and jails dissidents. Lukashenko has kept about 80 percent of industry in state hands and earned the nickname in the West of “Europe’s last dictator.”


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.

It isn’t clear in the article what Barankov’s chances are at being denied asylum; suffice to say, though, should the Ecuadoran courts revoke his asylum request and President Rafael Correa does nothing, the protection of Assange is going to look less like a disinterested party defending the institution of political asylum, and more like a partisan effort to protect some people who anger certain world powers (and who are, let’s not forget, charged with rape) while forcing other people to return to countries where their lives are very much at risk.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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