MOSCOW (AFP) – Fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden applied Tuesday for temporary asylum in Russia, ending three weeks of uncertainty after arriving from Hong Kong to escape the clutches of U.S. justice.
Snowden, wanted by the United States for revealing sensational details of its spying operations, made the application from the transit zone of state-controlled Sheremetyevo airport after meeting rights activists and lawyers there on Friday.
“The application has been filed with the Russian authorities,” said Kremlin-friendly lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who participated in the dramatic airport meeting and helped the fugitive negotiate the complexities of Russian legislation afterwards.
“There is no (other) way to resolve this situation,” Kucherena told AFP during an interview in Moscow.
He said that Snowden would remain at the airport while the asylum request was being processed. Only a translator had been present at their meeting on Tuesday to make the application, he added.
In his application, Snowden had written that he was concerned about his safety should he return to the United States, Kucherena said.
“He wrote that he fears for his life, safety, he fears that torture or death penalty could be applied against him,” Kucherena said separately in televised remarks. “And under these circumstances, understanding his position and situation, the Federal Migration Service should of course grant his request.”
The Federal Migration Service (FMS) confirmed it had received the application but the Kremlin sought in public to distance itself from the process.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin was aware of Snowden’s application but added he would not be involved.
“If we are talking about temporary asylum, then this is not a presidential issue but the issue of the FMS which will be considered not even at the director’s level,” Peskov was quoted as saying.
Putin said earlier this month Snowden could claim asylum in Russia only if he stopped his leaks, and the activists who met Snowden on Friday said he promised not to harm the United States.
Even though the Kremlin has said it has nothing to do with Snowden, political observers have said that his meeting with activists at the state-controlled airport would have been impossible without Kremlin involvement.
Russian authorities generally consider an application for temporary asylum for up to three months, with preliminary consideration taking up to five days.
After the application is accepted, an applicant receives a temporary document allowing him to live and travel locally, but Kucherena’s remarks indicate Snowden will for now remain at the airport.
Temporary asylum lasts for one year and would in theory give Snowden enough time to find a way to leave Russia, possibly for Latin America. It then can be extended every year for another 12 months.
Kucherena said Snowden had no immediate plans to leave the country.
“Right now he wants to stay in Russia. He has options. He has friends and supporters,” he told AFP. “Today I gave him a beginners’ Russian book. He said it was the first present he had received in Sheremetyevo.”
Snowden flew into Russia from Hong Kong on June 23 and has since been marooned in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo. He was checked in for an Aeroflot flight to Cuba on June 24 but never boarded the plane.
On Monday, Putin said Snowden would leave Russia “as soon as he can” and accused Washington of “trapping” the American in Moscow, saying no country wanted to take in Snowden due to U.S. pressure.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have indicated they would be open to offering the 30-year-old a safe haven.
The head of Amnesty International in Russia, Sergei Nikitin, who took part in the airport meeting, said Snowden would likely receive asylum in Russia.
“The way everything was organised so quickly, the whole logistics make it obvious for us that there’s an interest of the authorities,” he told AFP.
“So the decision will probably be positive.”
Washington has reacted sharply to the possibility that Moscow might offer Snowden a safe haven and accused it of providing him with a “propaganda platform.”