June 26 (Bloomberg) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to extradite fugitive Edward Snowden as the Obama administration maintained that officials in Moscow have a legal basis to return him to the U.S.
Russia was “completely surprised” by the arrival of Snowden, who remained in a Moscow airport transit zone after traveling from Hong Kong on June 23, Putin told reporters in Finland yesterday. Snowden, who faces U.S. espionage charges, can’t be handed over because the two nations don’t have an extradition treaty, Putin said.
Tensions between the U.S. and Russia increased after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on June 24 that it would be “deeply troubling” if Russia had received advance notice of Snowden’s arrival. Putin said yesterday that Russian security agencies “didn’t work and aren’t working” with Snowden and any accusations of wrongdoing by his country are “drivel and nonsense.”
Snowden has requested asylum in Ecuador, and he also may be exploring other possible places of refuge, according to Julian Assange, founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. Snowden, a former worker for government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., disclosed top-secret U.S. National Security Agency programs that collect phone and Internet data.
Snowden “is a free man, and the sooner he selects his final destination, the better it will be both for us and for him,” Putin said. “As a transit passenger, he has the right to buy a ticket and fly wherever he wants.”
Putin, who has clashed with President Barack Obama’s administration over issues including the war in Syria and U.S. plans to develop a missile-defense shield in Europe, sought to distance himself from the Snowden case, saying the two nations’ security agencies should handle it.
“Personally I’d prefer to keep out of such questions,” he said. “It’s like shearing a piglet: all squealing and no wool.”
Snowden lacks a valid passport or any other travel document that would allow him to buy a ticket to leave Russia, Interfax reported today, citing an unidentified person close to the fugitive. His U.S. passport has been revoked, according to an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Canceling Snowden’s passport and bullying intermediary countries may keep Snowden permanently in Russia,” WikiLeaks said on its Twitter account. “Not the brightest bunch at State.”
American officials sought to lower the temperature of the dispute yesterday. “We’re not looking for a confrontation,” Kerry told reporters in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement yesterday that “we agree with President Putin that we do not want this issue to negatively impact our bilateral relations.”
While the U.S. doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Russia, “there is nonetheless a clear legal basis to expel Mr. Snowden, based on the status of his travel documents and the pending charges against him,” Hayden said. “Accordingly, we are asking the Russian government to take action to expel Mr. Snowden without delay.”
U.S. attention also turned to Ecuador as Snowden’s possible destination.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said yesterday his government has had verbal conversations with the U.S. regarding Snowden’s asylum request and is still waiting for an official statement outlining its position.
“The U.S. still hasn’t sent any written communication about Edward Snowden’s situation,” Patino said yesterday according to a statement published in the Ecuadorean president’s official gazette. “A written statement has been requested to analyze it together with the asylum request made by Snowden.”
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said on June 24 the U.S. has “been in touch with Ecuador” and “we’ve made our point clear that, as I said, this is somebody who is wanted on criminal felony charges here in the United States and we’d like him returned to the United States to face justice.”
The Obama administration’s relations are already strained with Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa is vying to succeed Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez as the leading U.S. critic in Latin America.
Snowden hasn’t formally requested asylum in Venezuela, though if he did, “we would evaluate the request,” President Nicolas Maduro said yesterday on Venezuelan state television from Haiti. “This young person deserves humanitarian help.”
Assange, who posted thousands of classified U.S. military and diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks’s website, has been given refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in London to avert extradition to Sweden, where he faces questions about allegations of rape and sexual molestation, which he denies. Ecuador also expelled the U.S. ambassador in Quito in 2011.
While the U.S. remains Ecuador’s biggest trading partner, an escalation of tensions would further endanger the renewal of expiring U.S. trade preferences, Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow said.
“The trade relationship matters more for Ecuador than it does the U.S.,” Grais-Targow said yesterday in a telephone interview from Washington. “The preferences are already pretty unlikely to get renewed, and if Ecuador does give asylum to Snowden, it kind of cements that.”
Ecuadorean exports to the U.S. fell to $1.01 billion in April from $1.14 billion a year earlier, according to U.S. Census data. Ecuador would lose at least 40,000 jobs if the trade preferences aren’t renewed by the U.S. Congress, Ecuador’s Ambassador to the U.S. Nathalie Cely said last year.
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