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Asylum in Russia

Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who blew the whistle on its transnational mass surveillance programs, arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on 23 June 2013, en route to Ecuador where he had requested political asylum. However, he was unable to continue his journey due to the extraordinary and disproportionate actions of the US government, which announced it had cancelled his passport while he was in Moscow, rendering him unable to board onward flights. He remained stranded in the airside transit area of Sheremetyevo airport for nearly six weeks until being granted temporary asylum in Russia on 1 August 2013.

Arrival in Moscow from Hong Kong

US authorities made public their indictment of Edward Snowden on charges of theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defense information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence on 21 June 2013. Each of these charges carries a maximum 10-year sentence, with the latter two falling under the 1917 Espionage Act. It thus became clear it was no longer safe for Snowden to remain in Hong Kong as it was unlikely he would receive bail when the Hong Kong authorities actioned the US warrant. Mr Snowden, who had arrived in Hong Kong around 20 May 2013, had been living at an unknown safe address since checking out of his hotel on 10 June. Despite high-level negotiations between the US and HKSAR officials, including a telephone call from US Attorney-General Eric Holder on 19 June 2013, the Hong Kong authorities announced that the extradition paperwork had “insufficient information” and that Edward Snowden had departed the territory on 23 June through the “normal legal channel”. “There is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.”

A WikiLeaks statement confirmed that Edward Snowden had requested that WikiLeaks use its legal expertise and experience to secure his safety and that he had departed Hong Kong legally and was on a flight “bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum” escorted by WikiLeaks personnel. WikiLeaks later confirmed that the “safe route” referred to the lack of an extradition treaty between the US and Russia. Snowden was travelling legally and also had a ‘safe passage’ document issued by Ecuador’s London consul, which WikiLeaks had requested for him in case of any issues. The US did, in fact, cancel Snowden’s passport, which they announced on the 23 June while he was in Sheremetyevo airport transit area.

Sheremetyevo airport officials confirmed that Edward Snowden’s flight arrived at around 5pm on 23 June, but that he couldn’t leave the airport’s transit zone as he had no Russian visa. Mr Snowden was expected to stay overnight in the international section’s capsule hotel as he was booked on a flight to Havana the following day. However, as he was now without a valid passport, he never boarded that flight.

Denial of safe passage

The US administration expressed its displeasure that Snowden had been allowed to leave Hong Kong despite its extradition request, saying it “did not buy” Hong Kong’s explanations. A National Security Council spokesperson told reporters: “We expect the Russian government to look at all options available to expel Mr Snowden back to the US to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged”. US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia it would be “deeply troubling” if it allowed Snowden to board a plane out of the country. Other US politicians went further, for example Senator Chuck Schumer accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “aiding and abetting Snowden’s escape”.

Meanwhile Ecuador was coming under intense political pressure from Washington to reject Edward Snowden’s asylum request, which included threats of economic reprisals and a personal telephone call from US Vice-President Joseph Biden to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa involving “a broad conversation regarding the bilateral relationship”. A National Security Council spokeswoman confirmed: “They did discuss Mr Snowden, but we are not going to provide details on their discussion.” The following day Correa confirmed that Snowden’s ‘safe pass’ document was invalid as it had not been properly authorised and that it would not be replaced. Without a passport or other refugee travel documents, and with indications that the US would prevent any flight he was on crossing US or NATO-controlled airspace (see Political interference), onward travel to Latin America was impossible.

Extended stay in Sheremetyevo airport

The media amassed at Sheremetyevo airport eager to catch a glimpse of the whistleblower who had sparked a global debate about unwarranted government intrusion into citizens’ private communications, but Edward Snowden remained out of sight and no one was sure what would happen next. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a statement on 25 June 2013 that Edward Snowden was not in Russia as he had not exited through passport control and therefore “did not cross the Russian border”. He said his government had not been involved in Snowden’s travel as he was a transit passenger and had not needed a Russian visa: “I would like to say right away that we have no relation to either Mr Snowden or to his relationship with American justice or to his movements around the world. He chose his route on his own, and we found out about it, as most here did, from mass media,” but he did not elaborate further on Edward Snowden’s exact whereabouts.

In late August 2013 there were conflicting reports about contact between Edward Snowden and Russian officials prior to his departure for Moscow. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that Snowden had stayed at the Russian consulate in Hong Kong. This was disputed by Snowden’s Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, but Vladimir Putin later confirmed some of the details, stating that the Hong Kong consulate had been contacted for help by Snowden or on his behalf.

Russian response to Snowden’s presence

On Wednesday 26 June 2013 Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed Snowden was still in Sheremetyevo’s transit area and that he would not be deported to the US. Perhaps with a view to maintaining US-Russian bilateral relations at a time when they had been improving, Putin said Snowden’s presence in Russia was like an “unwanted Christmas gift” and described dealing with the situation as “like shearing a pig”. He said Russia’s security services “did not work and are not working with Snowden” (this was later confirmed by WikiLeaks, who stated Snowden had not been interrogated by the Russians, and added: “Since Hong Kong we have had someone physically by his side the entire time.”) Mr Putin also noted that Snowden had not broken any Russian laws and was therefore free to leave and “should do so”.

In its public statements the US administration softened its stance, saying it was not seeking a confrontation and would “simply appeal for calm and reasonableness”. Recognising that there was no bilateral extradition treaty between the two nations, Secretary of State John Kerry argued: “But there are standards of behavior between sovereign nations. There is common law. There is respect for rule of law. And we would simply call on our friends in Russia to respect the fact that a partner nation, a co-member of the Permanent 5 of the United Nations, has made a normal request under legal assistance for law to be upheld.” Nevertheless, Putin remained open to providing shelter for Snowden: “Russia never gives anyone up and doesn’t plan to give anyone up… Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information. Ask yourself this: should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov later confirmed that public opinion would be taken into account in Snowden’s case, along with the viewpoints of human rights experts.

First request for asylum in Russia

Edward Snowden’s first request for political asylum in Russia  – made on 30 June 2013 along with 18 others to countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia – was delivered to Russian consular officials in the international transit section of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport by WikiLeaks journalist and legal adviser Sarah Harrison. However, the request was withdrawn following remarks by Russian president Vladimir Putin that asylum was conditional on Snowden stopping his work “bringing harm to our American partners”.

Asylum requests to other countries

Edward Snowden also submitted asylum requests while at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport to Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Cuba, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Ireland, The Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and Venezuela. This brought the number of countries approached to 21, including the applications already made to Ecuador and Iceland. A further six countries were sent formal asylum requests on 5 July 2013, but these were not named to avoid any further political interference from the United States. Most of the applications were swiftly rejected, but on 6 July 2013 Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua all separately confirmed that they would grant Mr Snowden asylum.

12 July meeting with NGOs

The problem of obtaining safe passage out of Russia still remained, however, and nearly three weeks after he arrived there Edward Snowden, assisted by Sarah Harrison, held a meeting with human rights organisations and lawyers at Sheremetyevo airport to address this issue and to widen support for his plight. Representatives of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Transparency International were invited, as well as Russian lawmakers and human rights activists including Sergei Nikitin, the head of Amnesty International’s Russia office, prominent Moscow lawyer Genri Reznik and Russia’s presidential human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin. For security reasons, and despite the huge media presence in the airport, it was announced that the meeting would be closed to the press.

The US administration expressed its strong disapproval that this meeting took place, characterised it as a “propaganda platform”, and criticised any Russian officials who helped facilitate it. A State Department spokeswoman said of Edward Snowden: “He’s not a whistleblower. He’s not a human rights activist,” describing him instead as wanted on “a series of serious criminal charges brought in the eastern district of Virginia and the United States”.

At the meeting, Edward Snowden formally accepted all offers of support or asylum already received “and all others that may be offered in the future“. He went on to note that the US and some Western European countries had “demonstrated a willingness to act outside the law”, rendering him “stateless and hounded for my act of political expression” and unable to enjoy safe passage to Latin America, despite his formal asylee status following Venezuela’s grant of asylum on 6 July. Snowden also announced his intention to apply for temporary asylum in Russia “until such time as… my legal travel is permitted”, receipt of which was confirmed by Russian officials on 16 July 2013.

Grant of one-year temporary asylum

Edward Snowden’s Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena confirmed that his client would observe Vladimir Putin’s condition of asylum to not harm US interests. Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch quoted Snowden as saying: “No actions I take or plan are meant to harm the US”, so Putin’s condition posed no obstacle.

On 23 July US Attorney-General Eric Holder wrote to Russian Minister for Justice Alexander Konovalov confirming that the charges against Snowden were not death penalty offences and that torture is unlawful in the United States. This was an attempt to eliminate the “asserted grounds for Mr Snowden’s claim that he should be treated as a refugee or granted asylum, temporary or otherwise”.

Edward Snowden’s request for asylum was granted on 1 August 2013 for a period of one year ending 31 July 2014. Anatoly Kucherena confirmed Mr Snowden’s asylee status includes the right to work and travel within the Russian Federation, and that it can be extended annually. It means he can only be returned to the United States if he agrees to go voluntarily, even if a formal extradition request is filed. After five years he will be entitled to apply for Russian citizenship. Once he had received his certificate of refugee status from the Federal Migration Service, Mr Snowden was able to leave Sheremetyevo airport for the first time in nearly six weeks. WikiLeaks reported that Snowden said: “Over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning. I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations.” He left the airport around 3pm in a taxi, accompanied by WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison, for an undisclosed secure location.

US reaction

The White House announced that it was “extremely disappointed” by the Russian government’s decision to grant Mr Snowden asylum and that it was “reconsidering” a planned meeting between presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit scheduled for early September. On 7 August 2013 President Obama’s travel to Russia to meet Mr Putin was cancelled. Although the White House claimed the cancellation had nothing to do with Edward Snowden’s asylum, there is no doubt that relations between the US and Russia have chilled subsequently. Some US senators called for more “serious repercussions”, urging the President to recommend moving the G20 summit away from Russia, or to implement a US boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. Senator John McCain called on the US to “fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia” while Senator Lindsey Graham urged the US to expand NATO membership to Georgia and to push forward with controversial plans to build a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe.

Following President Maduro’s announcement on 6 July 2013 that Venezuela would grant Snowden asylum, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua received a personal call from John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, in which he threatened the loss of trade in oil and gas products, the withdrawal of US visas for Venezuelan officials and businessmen, prosecution of Venezuelan politicians for drug-trafficking and money-laundering, and the refusal of access to NATO-controlled airspace.

Current status

Edward Snowden is currently legally safe as the holder of a three-year residency permit in Russia, granted in August 2014 and extended until 2020; however, as his personal security is still at significant risk, his location cannot be revealed. He has chosen not to give many media interviews. Although his outings need to be threat-assessed on each occasion, he enjoys going unrecognised as he goes about his daily life. He is immersing himself in the Russian culture and learning the language. Following a recent visit, his father Lon Snowden confirmed “he’s comfortable, he’s happy, and he’s absolutely committed to what he has done”. A short video is available of Lon Snowden speaking to the press outside Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after his visit to his son.

Edward Snowden serves as President of the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Board of Directors and works on privacy-enhancing technologies like the Haven app, which was announced in December 2017.