MOSCOW (Reuters) - Former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden applied for temporary asylum in Russia on Tuesday after three weeks holed up at a Moscow airport trying to avoid prosecution in the United States on espionage charges.
The White House said Snowden is “not a dissident” and should be expelled and returned to the United States to face trial.
Snowden is seeking refuge in Latin America after leaking details of U.S. government surveillance programs, but has not risked taking any flight that might be intercepted by the United States. He flew into Moscow from Hong Kong on June 23.
“He reached the conclusion that he needs to write an application for temporary asylum (in Russia), and this procedure has just been done,” Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer who met Snowden on Friday along with human rights activists, told Reuters.
“For now he is not going to go anywhere. For now he plans to stay in Russia,” he said. If Snowden were granted temporary asylum, Kucherena said, he should have the same rights as other citizens and be free to work and travel in Russia.
The asylum application could end Snowden’s time in limbo but risks deepening U.S.-Russian tensions. Russia has refused to expel him to his homeland but has also kept him at arm’s length, saying he has not crossed its border because he remains in the international transit zone at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
President Barack Obama’s administration repeated its call for Russia to send Snowden, 30, back to the United States.
“He is not a human rights activist, he is not a dissident. He is accused of leaking classified information,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “He is a United States citizen who has been charged with crimes, and ... he should be afforded every bit of due process here in the United States. And he should return here to face trial.”
Unlike political asylum, granting Snowden temporary asylum would not require a decree from President Vladimir Putin, who may hope it is the best option for minimizing the damage to U.S. ties without looking weak in the eyes of Russians.
The Kremlin sought to distance Putin from the asylum decision, which is formally up to immigration officials but is widely expected to be in the president’s hands.
“If we are talking about temporary asylum, this is an issue not for the president but for the Federal Migration Service,” Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters in the Siberian city of Chita.
The head of the FMS, Konstantin Romodanovsky, confirmed the agency had received Snowden’s application. Anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which has been helping Snowden, said on Twitter that he had applied for “a temporary protection visa”.
Snowden, 30, is trapped in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport, an area between the runway and passport control which Russia regards as neutral territory.
He said on Friday he would seek refuge in Russia only until he can travel to one of the three Latin American countries ready to give him political asylum - Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
He said the United States and its allies were preventing him from reaching those countries. Washington has revoked Snowden’s passport and urged other countries not to help him reach an asylum destination.
Kucherena said he expected a decision on Snowden’s asylum request “soon”, though the FMS has up to three months to decide on the application. Temporary asylum is granted for up to a year, with the possibility of extension.
After Snowden met lawyers and activists at the airport on Friday, many pro-Kremlin politicians went on state television to say Russia should grant him asylum.
“He fears torture or the death penalty may be applied to him (if extradited),” said Kucherena, who said he had been advising Snowden since the airport meeting.
Putin has rebuffed U.S. calls to send Snowden home but has said he does not want the fugitive to harm relations with Washington. Ties have been strained over issues ranging from the Syrian conflict to Putin’s treatment of opponents since he started a six-year third term in 2012.
Snowden is useful as a propaganda tool for Putin, who accuses the U.S. government of preaching to the world about rights and freedoms it does not uphold at home. But Putin has invited Obama for a summit in Moscow in early September and both countries have signaled they want to improve relations.
Putin has said twice that Snowden must stop all activities “aimed at harming our American partners” if he wants political asylum in Russia, but he has not made clear whether the condition applies to temporary asylum as well.
Kucherena, who said he met Snowden twice in the past two days in the Sheremetyevo airport transit zone, said that Snowden had given him a verbal promise that he would stop activities directed against the United States.
“We did not formalize this in written form ... but he reassured me that the request of our president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, not to tarnish the U.S. government will be fulfilled,” he said. It was unclear whether that meant Snowden would stop leaking information.
Others who met Snowden on Friday said he told them he would find it easy to abide by Putin’s conditions. But a Human Rights Watch representative who was at the meeting said he simply meant he did not believe his actions had harmed the United States.
Kucherena said Snowden clearly understood the terms that Putin was setting but added: “I have not discussed the details of his conduct with him. ... If this question arises in the future, I will of course talk that through with him.”
State-run Rossiya-1 television aired a video of Kucherena showing a picture of Snowden’s asylum application on his iPad, written in black ink on a sheet of paper.
The application, filed to the Federal Migration Service by “Edward Joseph Snowden, United States citizen”, read:
“I hereby request your considering the possibility of granting to me temporary asylum in the Russian Federation.”
Kucherena, who said he communicated with Snowden by email, confirmed the authenticity of the picture to Reuters.
Putin said on Monday he hoped Snowden would leave as soon as he could, but left the door open for granting him asylum, saying there were signs the American fugitive was moving towards meeting the conditions he has set.
“As the president has said, we want our relations with the United States of America to develop in a progressive, positive way,” Peskov said.
He dismissed the U.S. State Department’s accusation that Russia had provided Snowden with a “propaganda platform” at the meeting with lawyers and activists, saying Snowden had asked for the meeting and that no country should reject such a request.
Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Alessandra Prentice and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow, Denis Dyomkin in Chita, Deborah Charles and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Mark Heinrich