MOSCOW — Edward Snowden hasn’t budged from the transit area of a Moscow airport, but his search for political asylum has come full circle.
The former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), who revealed the government’s secret efforts to track international telephone and Internet communications, called Russian human-rights activists and lawyers to Sheremetyevo International Airport on Friday and asked them for help gaining asylum in Russia — at least for now.
The request reflects the tight spot Snowden is in almost three weeks after arriving in Moscow from Hong Kong, where he originally fled after leaving the United States.
It puts the focus back on Russian President Vladimir Putin and threatens to worsen tense relations between Russia and the United States, which has demanded Snowden’s return.
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Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have indicated they will consider asylum requests from Snowden. But the logistics of traveling from Moscow to Latin America are daunting, and it’s unclear whether any planning has begun.
“He is in a situation with no way out,” said lawyer Alexander Kucherena, who was among those meeting with Snowden on Friday. “He has no passport and can travel nowhere; he has no visa.”
If he receives asylum in Russia, Snowden can apply for citizenship in five years, said Kucherena, who added that he would help with the paperwork. The decision will be made by Putin, he said.
The Obama administration reacted angrily to Snowden’s meeting Friday, accusing Russia of providing him with a “propaganda platform.”
Administration spokesman Jay Carney said allowing the meeting ran “counter to the Russian government’s previous declaration of Russian neutrality,” and to its assertions that it had no control over his presence in the transit area of the airport.
President Obama spoke Friday by telephone with Putin on a number of issues, including the status of Snowden, but details were not provided.
The meeting with Snowden also put organizations that regularly accuse the Russian government of human-rights abuses in the position of being asked to serve as intermediary to the Kremlin on his behalf.
Human-rights activist Tanya Lokshina said he told them asylum in Russia was the only option he saw that would provide for his security.
“Basically he asked us to help him on two issues: first to petition for his request for asylum to Putin, at least until he could travel to Latin America,” said Lokshina, director of Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office. “Secondly, he would like us to appeal to the governments of the United States and countries of the European Union not to interfere with his asylum-seeking process.”
She quoted Snowden as saying that it would be easy for him to comply with Putin’s demand that he stop leaking information harmful to the U.S. “I didn’t do any damage to the United States,” she quoted Snowden as saying.
Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the journal National Defense, predicted Snowden would receive asylum.
U.S. officials have vowed to pursue and extradite Snowden, who was charged by federal prosecutors last month with two violations of the Espionage Act and theft of government property.