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QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — A judge on Ecuador's highest court rejected on Tuesday an extradition request for a former police investigator from Belarus who has been jailed since June, and ordered him 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 Barankov to be justified, according to a court official who sent The Associated Press the judge's order. The official was not authorized to be identified by name.
The 30-year-old Barankov 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."
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 Barankov said when the AP reached him by phone in jail. His Ecuadorean girlfriend had notified him just moments earlier.
His release was expected as early as Wednesday.
Tuesday's ruling was the second by Ramirez to reject an extradition request from Belarus. The first was in October of last year, when Ramirez found the evidence presented against him to be inadequate.
Barankov blamed his jailing in early June on pressure from Belarus ahead of 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.
Barankov was backed by human rights activists in Belarus
Barankov's case came under scrutiny when Ecuador announced it was granting 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 Assange's asylum request.
Barankov's attorney, Fernando Lara, told the AP on Tuesday that while he welcomed Tuesday's ruling it came "82 days late" because his client never should have been jailed.
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.