Fugitive Snowden to seek temporary asylum in Russia
MOSCOW - Reuters
Former intelligence agency contractor Edward Snowden speaks to human rights representatives in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport in this July 12, picture provided by Human Rights Watch.Fugitive former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, camped at a Moscow airport out of the reach of U.S. authorities, said on July 12 he was seeking temporary asylum in Russia and had no regrets about spilling U.S. spy secrets.
Meeting rights activists summoned to Sheremetyevo airport to hear him break weeks of silence, he assailed Western nations he said had prevented him getting to Latin America and said he hoped to stay in Russia until he has "safe passage" there.
The U.S. State Department repeated its call on Russia to send Snowden to the United States, saying granting the American fugitive asylum would "raise concerns" and criticising Moscow for giving a "propaganda platform".
The White House said President Barack Obama would speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin later on July 12.
Snowden has not been seen publicly since he arrived at Sheremetyevo from Hong Kong on June 23 and Russian officials say he has not formally entered the country because he has remained in the airport's transit zone.
Snowden, who lived with his girlfriend in Hawaii and worked at a National Security Agency facility there before fleeing he country, said he had sacrificed a comfortable life in disclosing details of secret surveillance programmes.
"A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise," Snowden, 30, said at the closed-door meeting, footage of which was shown on Russian television and a news website with close ties to Russian law enforcement agencies.
"I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone's communications at any time. That is the power to change people's fates," he said.
A Kremlin spokesman said Snowden should not harm the interests of the United States if he wants refuge in Russia - a condition initially set by Putin on July 1 and which the Kremlin said prompted Snowden to withdraw an asylum request at the time.
"Snowden is serious about obtaining political asylum in the Russian Federation," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Kremlin lawmaker who attended the meeting that authorities helped organise at an undisclosed location at the airport.
'Snowden wants to move to Latin America'
Snowden, who has been offered asylum by Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, asked for help "requesting guarantees of safe passage from the relevant nations in securing my travel to Latin America". But it was unclear when that might happen, or how.
"He wants to move further on, he wants to move to Latin America - he said it quite clearly," Tanya Lokshina, deputy head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
"But in order to be guaranteed safety here in Russia, the only way for him to go was to file a formal asylum plea."
Putin has made a show of impatience over Snowden's stay, saying twice since he arrived that he should choose a destination and leave. But it had also become clear that he has no easy route to a safe haven from Moscow.
Snowden's predicament has thrust him into the hands of Russia as Washington and Moscow are seeking to improve relations that soured over issues including Syria and human rights since Putin's return to the Kremlin in 2012.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it would raise concerns in the U.S.-Russian relationship if Moscow were to accept an asylum request from Snowden.
"However we are not at that point yet. They still have the opportunity to do the right thing and return Mr. Snowden to the United States and that's what our hope is," she said.
Putin has frequently accused the United States of double standards on human rights and has championed its critics, but he has invited Obama to Moscow for a summit in early September and does not want to ruin the chances for that.
Putin's spokesman repeated earlier conditions that Snowden should stop harming the interests of the United States if he wants asylum.
"As far as we know, he considers himself a defender of human rights and a campaigner for democratic ideals," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Peskov said Snowden should "fully refrain from actions inflicting damage on our American partners and on Russian-American relations", Interfax news agency reported.
Lawmaker Nikonov said that this message had got through. "I asked him if he was ready to give up his political activity against the United States. He said, 'Definitely, yes, all this activity was in the past'," he said. He later said Snowden had submitted the asylum request.
After Snowden's meeting, pro-Kremlin politicians lined up to cast the American as a rights activist who deserved protection because he could be charged in the United States with espionage, a crime that carries the death penalty.
"There is a really great risk that Edward Snowden is facing this very punishment," Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, told state TV. "We simply can't allow this."
"I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing. I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell U.S. secrets," he said.
"That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets."