OSCOW (AFP) – Fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden on Thursday left the Moscow airport where he was marooned for over five weeks, after Russia granted him one year’s asylum in a move that risks infuriating Washington.
Snowden slipped out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in a cloak-and-dagger operation overseen by his Russian lawyer but unnoticed by the hordes of media trying to follow his every move.
The former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor was whisked away in a taxi to an undisclosed location, leaving his lawyer to reveal that Snowden had received temporary asylum in Russia just two weeks after making an application.
“Snowden has left Sheremetyevo airport. He has just been given a certificate that he has been awarded temporary asylum in Russia for one year,” lawyer Anatoly Kucherena told AFP.
A spokeswoman for Sheremetyevo confirmed he had left the airport after 2:00 pm (1000 GMT). A grainy still image published by Rossiya 24 television showed a young man with a rucksack — apparently Snowden — about to get into a car outside the airport.
Snowden, 30, is wanted on felony charges by the United States after leaking details of vast U.S. surveillance programmes, but Russia has refused to extradite him.
In a statement released by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website, Snowden thanked Russia for giving him asylum and slammed the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama for having “no respect” for international or domestic law.
“But in the end the law is winning,” Snowden said.
— ‘A safe place’ —
Kucherena, who had held several meetings with Snowden and helped him make his asylum application on July 16, added his new place of residence would be kept secret for security reasons.
“His location is not being made public for security reasons since he is the most pursued man on the planet. He himself will decide where he will go,” Kucherena said, adding Snowden was now in a “safe place”.
Interviewed by Rossiya 24 television, Kucherena held up a scanned copy of Snowden’s certificate granting him a year’s temporary asylum in Russia.
The name “Snowden Edward Joseph” appears in the asylum document shown on television next to the black and white photo of the bespectacled fugitive.
It was issued on July 31, valid until July 31 of 2014, and is complete with his fingerprint.
Kucherna said that Snowden would eventually emerge into public view and give interviews to the press. But he said Snowden first required an “adaptation course” after so long in the transit zone.
He said Snowden would be helped in Russia by unspecified “American friends” who would assist with the fugitive’s security.
Meanwhile, the founder of Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte — 28-year-old Pavel Durov — offered a job to Snowden as a programmer.
According to Kucherena, Snowden misses his girlfriend, who is reportedly an American dancer. “When I told him what sort of girls call for him, he said: ‘But Anatoly, I have a girlfriend.'”