MOSCOW – Edward Snowden has applied for political asylum in Russia, an official said Monday, as President Vladimir Putin warned the fugitive U.S. leaker to stop harming American interests if he wishes to remain.
“If he wants to stay, there’s one condition: he must stop his activity aimed at harming our American partners, as strange as it sounds coming from my lips,” Putin told reporters in the Kremlin Monday. He said Snowden is unlikely to accept that restriction.
Snowden’s asylum application was delivered Sunday evening to a visa office at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport by WikiLeaks’ legal adviser Sarah Harrison, a consular official who received the document, Kim Shevchenko, said by phone.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said it’s “up to the Russians to confirm” whether Snowden has requested asylum there.
“Our position is the same - that he should be expelled and returned home here to the U.S.,” Ventrell told reporters at a briefing today in Washington.
Putin defied U.S. calls last week to hand over Snowden as he remained stuck in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo days after arriving on June 23 from Hong Kong, which refused a U.S. extradition request. The former worker for government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. has revealed he was the source of leaks on top-secret U.S. National Security Agency programs that collect phone and Internet data.
Ecuador came under U.S. pressure after Snowden, 30, requested asylum in the Latin American country. Vice President Joe Biden asked President Rafael Correa to reject Snowden’s bid for refuge, Ecuador’s leader said in a radio address June 29.
European officials are demanding more information on the latest revelation stemming from Snowden’s releases, a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel that the NSA has been wiretapping European Union diplomatic missions in Washington and the United Nations building in New York. The report cited classified documents in Snowden’s possession.
“Given the fact that he feels that he is a human-rights defender, he is unlikely to stop such work, so that is why he should choose a country of destination and go there,” Putin said after a meeting of gas-exporting nations. “When that will happen, unfortunately, I don’t know.”
The case has rattled international relations, with Secretary of State John Kerry last week warning Russia and China of “consequences” of their actions. Kerry and other U.S. officials later shifted to a more conciliatory approach, and President Barack Obama said that there have been “some useful conversations” between the U.S. and Russia to resolve the issue.
Snowden, who faces U.S. espionage charges, can’t be handed over because Russia and the U.S. don’t have an extradition treaty, Putin has said.
Russia was “completely surprised” by the arrival of Snowden, Putin told reporters in Finland on June 25. Russian authorities were probably informed by the Chinese government of Snowden’s route although they didn’t plan his escape, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign affairs magazine.
Shevchenko, the airport consular official, said he had informed his superiors of the application and sent it by courier last night at 11.30 p.m. “I don’t know what has happened with it since,” he said.
Russia should protect Snowden and offer him asylum if he asks for it, the head of Putin’s human rights council said earlier.
“His actions were in the public interest and so society must defend him,” Mikhail Fedotov said in a phone interview Monday. “We must protect this person if he ends up on Russian territory and asks for political asylum.”
Venezuela, whose President Nicolas Maduro said on June 26 that his country would “almost surely” give asylum to Snowden if he asked for it, may be the fugitive’s last hope for a destination other than Russia, Lukyanov said.
Maduro and heads of other gas-exporting nations including Iran and Algeria are attending a meeting in Moscow this week.
Putin said that he didn’t know if any foreign delegations were planning to take Snowden away.
Helping Snowden is a “matter of principle” for Russia because handing over a political refugee is “morally unacceptable,” Alexei Pushkov, the head of the lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said on his Twitter account June 29.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Sunday that while Snowden’s case wasn’t a matter for the Kremlin, the Russian leadership would take into account the views of human rights organizations and society.
“Public opinion is very substantial on this issue,” Peskov said in an interview with radio Ekho Moskvy. “We are aware of this and we are taking it into account.”
“If Snowden has nowhere to go, maybe Russia will have to take him in,” Lukyanov said by phone. “It won’t do so exactly enthusiastically, but it can’t hand him over to the U.S. for reasons of national prestige.”
Correa criticized his country’s consul in London for issuing Snowden a document of safe passage, according to an interview with the Associated Press Sunday. He said the American would need to get to an Ecuadorean embassy to apply for asylum and he can’t leave Moscow airport without Russian approval, the AP reported.
The U.S. is Ecuador’s biggest trading partner, taking more than $1 billion in Ecuadorean exports in April. Correa said last week his country would renounce U.S. trade benefits because they are being used as “blackmail.” Ecuador would lose at least 40,000 jobs if the trade preferences due to expire next month aren’t renewed, Nathalie Cely, the nation’s ambassador to the U.S., said last year.
Speaking Monday in Brunei, Kerry said he discussed the Snowden case with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. Before leaving Brunei Tuesday, where he’s attending a forum hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Kerry plans to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about Syria.
“The Obama administration believes that our friends in China could in fact have made the difference here,” Kerry said of China’s ability to have prevented Snowden from exiting Hong Kong.
Kerry said he had no direct knowledge of allegations of U.S. wiretapping of European allies and sought to downplay the bugging report even as he promised to investigate the matter.
“I am deeply worried and shocked,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said in an emailed statement. “If the allegations prove to be true, it would be an extremely serious matter which will have a severe impact on EU-U.S. relations.”
Arresting Snowden wouldn’t stop the release of information on classified programs to collect phone records and other communications, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, the anti- secrecy group that publishes government documents on its website, said Sunday.
“Great care has been taken to make sure that Mr. Snowden can’t be pressured by any state to stop the publication process,” Assange, who’s has been holed up at Ecuador’s embassy in London for more than a year after the country granted him asylum, said on ABC’s “This Week” program.
The Obama administration’s relations are already strained with Putin, who has clashed with the U.S. over issues including the conflict in Syria and American plans to develop a missile- defense shield in Europe.
“Any state, including Ecuador, can decide independently whether to grant Snowden political asylum,” Fedotov said. “It’s a very unpleasant situation; the sooner it ends the better.”
With assistance from Susan Decker, John Walcott and David Lerman in Washington, Nathan Gill in Quito and Torrey Clark in Moscow.