ECUADOR’S high court is mulling the extradition of a dissident blogger and ex-soldier from Belarus who took refuge there in 2009 fearing the death penalty in his home country, his lawyer has said.

Ecuador’s much-criticised record on press freedom has come under renewed scrutiny following its decision to grant asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, holed up in its London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden.

Alexander Barankov, a former army captain, fled to Ecuador in 2009 after being charged with fraud, allegations he says were trumped up after he blogged about widespread corruption linked to people close to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”.

Ecuador granted him asylum in 2010 after he argued that he faced the death penalty for treason in Belarus, but imprisoned him for 52 days later that year after an extradition request from Minsk that was eventually rejected.

But Mr Barankov’s lawyer, Fernando Lara, said the court had agreed earlier this month to examine a fresh demand for extradition and would rule on it in the coming days.

Mr Barankov, 30, is wanted by Interpol for fraud.

But Mr Lara said the regime is out to silence Mr Barankov – a former member of a military anti-corruption investigation team – after he uncovered illicit activities embarrassing to top officials.

The European Union and the United States have accused Belarus of detaining dissidents and committing other human rights abuses, and tightened sanctions in the wake of a disputed election in December 2010 that handed another term to Mr Lukashenko, in power since 1994.

The Barankov case re-emerged following a visit by Mr Lukashenko to Ecuador in June, when he signed several military and other accords with President Rafael Correa, a leftist leader who has moved to strengthen ties with US foes.

The reopening of the Barankov case comes at a time of tensions with Britain over Mr Assange, who is wanted for questioning in Sweden over sexual assault allegations but fears being sent on to the United States for prosecution.

Washington has viewed WikiLeaks as a threat to its national security following the release of a trove of thousands of leaked military reports from Iraq and Afghanistan and secret embassy cables from around the world.

Ecuador’s support for Mr Assange – who presents himself as a whistle-blower and the victim of a US “witch-hunt” – has drawn attention to Mr Correa’s long-running feud with the country’s own private media.

Rights groups and press freedom organizations have roundly criticised Mr Correa for targeting opposition media with libel suits, accusing Ecuador of having one of the worst records on press freedom in Latin America.

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