REYKJAVIK, June 21 (Reuters) - Iceland refused on Friday to say whether it would grant asylum to Edward Snowden, who revealed secret U.S. surveillance programmes, and whose supporters want him to copy c#hess master Bobby Fischer and seek the island’s citizenship for protection.
An Icelandic businessman linked to anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said on Thursday he had readied a private plane in China to fly Snowden, reported to be in Hong Kong, to Iceland, if its government would grant asylum.
But the authorities stuck to a non-committal stance on the American, a former National Security Agency worker.
“To apply for asylum in Iceland, the individual in question must be present in Iceland and make the application in his or her own name,” a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry said.
Asked if Iceland would grant asylum or citizenship if Snowden arrived, the spokesperson said it was not possible to answer that at this stage.
The businessman who has arranged the plane for Snowden, Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson, told Reuters on Friday that contacts with the government continued. He said nothing short of an asylum guarantee, or citizenship, would ensure Snowden’s safety.
“If he hasn’t done it already, he is probably in the process of applying for citizenship,” he added.
Such a move would mirror that of Fischer, who was granted Icelandic citizenship by parliament after the chess player got into trouble with the United States for evading taxes and breaking sanctions by playing a match in Yugoslavia in 1992.
After years living abroad, he was detained in Japan, where he applied for and was awarded Icelandic citizenship in 2005. He spent his last years in Iceland before dying in 2008.
Snowden has mentioned Iceland as a possible refuge.
The country has a reputation for promoting Internet freedoms. Snowden has said he did not travel there immediately as he feared the small country could be pressured by Washington.
Lawyer Katrin Oddsdottir said Snowden could apply for citizenship from outside the country, as Fischer did.
“He (Snowden) could just send his application for citizenship in the post,” said Oddsdottir, who works for Rettur, which specialises in human rights issues.
“Immigration would receive the application and it would be sent to parliament, which would vote on his application.”
The centre-right government, elected in April, faces pressure to live up to a freedom-of-speech reputation. But that could also annoy its U.S. ally.
The asylum process could take more than a year. Supporters also fear Snowden could risk extradition to the United States.
According to Icelandic law, parliament can grant citizenship to foreigners, which can otherwise usually only be gained through naturalisation after a period of residence.
Decisions on asylum applications are made by the Directorate of Immigration and, if rejected, an appeal can be made to the Interior Ministry, Icelandic law states.
Sigurvinsson, a businessman who runs data centres, said he was a supporter of WikiLeaks and had helped store data for the group. He and the company he led, DataCell, this year won a court case to unfreeze credit card payments to WikiLeaks.
He said he and a few other people sympathetic to Snowden had been discussing the American’s plight recently.
“And then someone came up with the idea, ‘Why aren’t we there picking him up?'” he said.
He said he had a Gulfstream G550 jet at the ready which can fly non-stop from China to Iceland.
He added said other modes of transport had been arranged for Snowden as a backup, but jet was the preferred way.
“We need to play it as it comes, so we are basically ready for anything. We might need to go by boat for a bit, cars and planes will be involved,” he said. (Additional reporting by Patrick Lannin and Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Michael Roddy; Writing by Patrick Lannin; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Michael Roddy)