Fugitive U.S. ex-security contractor Edward Snowden asked to stay in Russia after summoning human rights activists to a Moscow airport where he’s been stranded for almost three weeks.
Snowden, 30, who exposed classified U.S. programs that collect telephone and Internet data, said the U.S. and its European allies are blocking him from reaching asylum in Latin America, according to a statement posted on the website of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
“I ask for your assistance in requesting guarantees of safe passage from the relevant nations in securing my travel to Latin America, as well as requesting asylum in Russia until such time as these states accede to law and my legal travel is permitted,” he told representatives of local and international rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Snowden, whose presence in Russia has heightened tensions with the U.S., has been in Sheremetyevo Airport’s transit area since June 23. He’s been seeking asylum around the world as U.S. authorities press for his return to face prosecution. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have indicated they’d be willing to take him.
His previous request for asylum in Russia was withdrawn 24 hours later after President Vladimir Putin insisted Snowden stop “anti-American” activities.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that “providing a propaganda platform for Mr. Snowden runs counter to the Russian government’s previous declarations of Russia’s neutrality” in the case.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was “disappointed” that Russian officials “facilitated this meeting” at the airport. “We still believe that Russia has the opportunity to do the right thing and facilitate his return to the United States,” she said.
It’s likely that Snowden will get refuge in Russia because he’s now ready to commit not to harm U.S. interests, Vyacheslav Nikonov, a lawmaker in the lower house of parliament from the ruling United Russia party and part of the group that met Snowden today, told reporters at the airport.
Participants were escorted into a restricted zone by airport officials. Snowden seemed “very self-assured and didn’t seem at a loss,” said Genri Reznik, a lawyer who had represented Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin. Without evidence to show that he was acting for personal gain rather than political motivation, there’s no reason to deny him asylum, he said by phone after meeting Snowden.
Snowden is seeking temporary haven, Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, said on her Facebook page, alongside a photograph from the meeting of the fugitive, who hadn’t been seen in public since his arrival from Hong Kong on a flight operated by Russia’s state-run OAO Aeroflot.
“Edward Snowden has a serious asylum claim that should be considered fairly by Russia or any other country where he may apply,” Dinah PoKempner, Human Rights Watch’s general counsel, said in a statement. The New York-based group said it hasn’t taken any other action on Snowden’s behalf.
“Human Rights Watch doesn’t provide financial support, counseling or any other support to Snowden,” PoKempner said in an e-mail. “We’re not a service-providing organization, like a legal organization might be. We are reporting on what he says. We are looking at the situation for human-rights issues and we are commenting on human-rights issues.”
U.S. and European willingness to act outside the law “makes it impossible” for Snowden to travel to the Latin American countries that have offered him asylum, he said in a statement posted on the website of WikiLeaks, which has been assisting him since he left the U.S. for Hong Kong.
“We have witnessed an unlawful campaign by officials in the U.S. government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Snowden wrote, according to a letter sent to the activists. “The scale of threatening behavior is without precedent.”
The U.S. has pressured allies to deny airspace rights for any plane carrying the fugitive. Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane was grounded in Austria and searched after flying from Russia on July 2. Morales said France, Italy, Spain and Portugal had refused to allow the plane into their airspace.
With his U.S. passport revoked, Snowden can’t leave the Moscow airport transit zone without a new travel document.
It will take about three weeks for the Russian authorities to decide whether to grant refuge status to Snowden, Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer and a member of the Public Chamber who attended the meeting, told Bloomberg News.
Putin will probably insist on “tough” restrictions to stop Snowden from leaking more classified U.S. information, said Alexei Mukhin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov today repeated Russia’s offer to allow Snowden to stay under the same conditions set out by the president.
“It is a very high priority for Putin not to hand Snowden over to the U.S., which would seem like he’s bowing to American demands,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. At the same time, Snowden’s predicament puts the Russian leader in a “very embarrassing” situation as he doesn’t want to cause unnecessary tensions with the U.S.
Putin 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,
The U.S. pursuit of Snowden has emerged as a sticking point in international relations. Obama told Chinese officials yesterday that he was disappointed with the treatment of U.S. demands that Hong Kong hand over Snowden, who was allowed to flee to Russia from the Chinese self-governing territory.
Other than Russia, Snowden has sought refuge in 26 countries, most of which have spurned his requests. Russia and China, which both rejected U.S. requests for his extradition, have said he isn’t working with their secret services.
“We need to find a solution without worsening the already uneasy relations with the U.S. and without putting the young man in danger,” Olga Kostina, head of the Soprotivlenie human-rights movement and one of the participants in the airport meeting, said by phone.