The American whistleblower Edward Snowden has sought asylum in Russia, in his first encounter with the outside world since becoming marooned at a Moscow airport three weeks ago during a globe-trotting flight from charges of espionage.
His move prompted President Barack Obama to pick up the phone and call Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, presumably to demand the return of the 30-year-old former analyst at the National Security Agency, who came from nowhere last month to trigger one of the biggest intelligence leaks in American history.
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, warned Russia against allowing Mr Snowden a “propaganda platform” by letting him stay in the country. No exact details of the conversation have been disclosed, but Snowden was among the topics the leaders discussed, with security relations and counterterrorism preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi also covered.
Caey said such granting Snowden asylum would “run counter” to Moscow’s assurances that it did not want the affair to harm US-Russia relations. He renewed Washington’s call on Russia to expel Mr Snowden so that he could be returned to American soil to face trial for leaking US national security secrets.
There were chaotic scenes after Mr Snowden invited human rights groups and senior Russian officials to meet him at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, where he has been trapped in a closed area of the transit zone since he flew in from Hong Kong on June 23 with the US authorities closing in.
At least 200 television camera operators and reporters stampeded through Terminal F to see a group of about 10 human rights activits, lawyers and at least one Russian MP ushered through a door marked “staff only”. The guests were transported by bus to a meeting with Mr Snowden, who was accompanied by the British WikiLeaks activist, Sarah Harrison, who has been with him for several weeks.
“Hello. My name is Ed Snowden. A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort,” the fugitive told his guests, according to a transcript published later by WikiLeaks.
He declared he had no regrets about exposing details of “massive, pervasive surveillance” by US intelligence agencies, but that he was forced to apply for “temporary political asylum” in Russia while he secured an onward route to Latin America, where he hoped to seek final refuge, despite having no passport.
“Individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring,” Mr Snowden said.
“Accordingly, 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 US secrets. I did not partner with any foreign government to guarantee my safety. Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice.”
Mr Snowden’s request for refuge gained immediate support from some senior Russian political figures – including Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the lower house of parliament – and the Kremlin indicated his application would be reviewed.
A shaky video of the airport meeting showed the 30-year-old former National Security Agency contractor leaker smiling broadly and joking “I’ve heard this many times” as a tannoy flight announcement interrupted his speech.
Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch’s Moscow bureau, who was among those who attended the 45-minute meeting, told The Daily Telegraph afterwards that the American appeared in good health.
“He said that he was about to file a formal asylum claim with the Russian authorities,” she said.
Mr Snowden was asked whether he would meet Vladimir Putin’s condition for staying in Russia that Mr Snowden did nothing to “harm our American partners”, which was issued when the American made an earlier less public application.
“Snowden said that he did not find the condition problematic because Putin said he would be ready to give him asylum in the case that he stopped damaging Russia’s partners,” said Ms Lokshina. “And in his [Snowden’s] perception whatever he has done and is planning to do does not harm the United States. He stressed that he did not want to do harm, that he wanted the US to succeed and do well.”
Other attendees said Snowden had made it clear his eventual destination was Latin America, where Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have offered him asylum – and asked his guests to help pressure the US and European states not to impede his travel there.
Washington has urged countries whose airspace Mr Snowden might have to cross not to offer any assistance, as well as his possible final destinations.
Ms Lokshina revealed that before the meeting she had received a phone call from a representative of the US embassy in Moscow, asking her to pass on a message from US Ambassador Michael McFaul to Mr Snowden that “he’s no whistleblower, that he broke the law and should be held accountable”.
When he heard the message, Mr Snowden responded that he was not surprised, and that he “definitely viewed himself as a whistleblower who had revealed information of very significant public interest”.
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