WASHINGTON — In an effort to break the international standoff over U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has assured Russian authorities the American won’t face the death penalty or torture if he returns to the United States.
Attorney General Eric Holder wrote to his Russian counterpart to say that Snowden’s claim to need political asylum in Russia for fear of abuse or execution if returned to the United States was “entirely without merit,” the Justice Department disclosed Friday.
Holder told Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov that the former private contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) would be accorded the protections of U.S. law, including the right to an attorney and to a public trial by jury.
After Snowden fled to Hong Kong from his home and workplace in Honolulu, he leaked to British and U.S. news media details of massive NSA surveillance operations that gather data on millions of citizens’ private phone calls, emails and Internet use. The leaks were made public in June, and he was soon fired by Booz Allen Hamilton from his $122,000-a-year job, charged with three felony counts of espionage and theft. The U.S. revoked his passport June 22.
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Snowden showed up at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport a day after his travel document was canceled and has been unable to proceed through passport control or buy airline tickets. Snowden, 30, wrote in an appeal that he feared he would be tortured during interrogation and possibly sentenced to death if he returned to face prosecution in the United States.
Holder’s letter also disputed Snowden’s claim that he was unable to travel out of Russia. He remains a U.S. citizen, Holder said, and the U.S. government is prepared to provide him with a “limited validity passport” that would allow him to return to the United States.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia would not send Snowden to the U.S. against his will, the Interfax news agency reported.