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Asylum requests

Between 19 June and 16 July 2013, 28 applications for asylum to 27 different countries (including twice to Russia), were made on Edward Snowden’s behalf, the majority [19] by WikiLeaks journalist and legal adviser Sarah Harrison to the Russian consulate at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow on 30 June 2013. A further six asylum applications were made on 5 July, although WikiLeaks stated that those countries would not be named “due to attempted US interference”. He was finally granted temporary asylum in Russia lasting one year on 1 August 2013.

Early negotiations for asylum in Iceland

When talking about his future prospects to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill in a videotaped interview on 9 June 2013 in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden indicated that his first preference for eventual safe harbour would be Iceland because of its strong reputation for protecting internet freedom.

Icelandic free speech activists and some parliamentarians quickly voiced support for the idea. However, Iceland’s ambassador to China told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post that “according to Icelandic law a person can only submit such an application once he/she is in Iceland” and some commenters warned that Iceland’s recent change of government meant that there was less likelihood of asylum being granted there.

In an online Q&A forum Edward Snowden stated he did not travel to Iceland immediately from the United States as he feared the country of only 320,000 could be pressured by Washington: “Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current U.S. Administration”. Icelandic businessman Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson, former CEO of Datacell, a company that handles donations for WikiLeaks, later confirmed that private donors had chartered a Gulfstream G550 jet to bring Edward Snowden to Iceland at a cost of more than US$240,000 although it was never used, probably because the lack of parliamentary support in Iceland meant Snowden would still be in danger of extradition from there. However, WikiLeaks’ spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic citizen, continued to negotiate directly with ministers as options for asylum in other countries were explored.

Icelandic supporters raised the possibility of granting Snowden citizenship to circumvent the need to be on Icelandic soil in order to apply for asylum, which was used successfully to help chess master Bobby Fischer escape from Japan in 2005 when he faced US extradition and prosecution. It was felt citizenship would also help protect Snowden from onward extradition to the US from Iceland. Icelandic MPs representing the Pirate Party, the Left-Green Movement, Bright Future and the Social Democratic Alliance introduced a bill on 4 July 2013 to Iceland’s Althing parliament to grant Snowden citizenship – the last day of meetings before the parliament broke for its summer recess – however the majority of MPs voted against discussing it. As a result, a decision could not be reached until September at the earliest.

Initial application for asylum in Ecuador and departure from Hong Kong

Edward Snowden said he initially flew to Hong Kong because of its ”spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”, and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist pressure from the US government. WikiLeaks tweeted a map of long-haul destinations from Hawaii, noting that, as one of few places with direct flights and no stopovers which cross or enter US or allies’ airspace, “Hong Kong, dangerous as it is, safest option for Snowden”. On 15 June hundreds of protesters rallied outside the US consulate in Hong Kong, demanding local authorities protect Mr Snowden. The Hong Kong government promised to handle his case and any extradition request from the US strictly according to established law and policy.

Hong Kong’s extradition treaty with the US was signed in 1997 on its return to Chinese sovereignty, but due to a March 2013 ruling by Hong Kong’s High Court asylum-seekers could not be deported until the government established new procedures to review asylum cases – potentially making any US request for extradition a very lengthy process if Edward Snowden sought asylum there first. However, bail would be unlikely to be granted when the US request came in, severely limiting Mr Snowden’s ability to participate in the global debate about surveillance and citizens’ privacy rights he had initiated.

On 23 June 2013 Hong Kong announced Edward Snowden had left Hong Kong and WikiLeaks confirmed he was “bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum”. WikiLeaks journalist and legal adviser Sarah Harrison was to accompany Snowden to Moscow, and from there Harrison planned to accompany him to Ecuador through stopovers in Cuba and Venezuela. Ecuadorian Foreign Minster Ricardo Patino confirmed on Twitter that his government had received an asylum request.

The Hong Kong authorities confirmed that Mr Snowden left the territory of his own accord by the “lawful and normal channel” as the extradition warrant issued by Washington had insufficient information and “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law”. Snowden travelled to Moscow carrying refugee travel documents issued with the help of Ecuador’s London consul Fidel Narvaez in case of any problems (in the event when he reached Moscow the State Department announced they had cancelled his passport), although these were subsequently withdrawn due to errors in authorisation. Edward Snowden later wrote to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa thanking him for his country’s support and noting the “decisive action of your Consul in London, Fidel Narvaez, guaranteed my rights would be protected upon departing Hong Kong – I could never have risked travel without that.”

Attempts to reach asylum in Latin America

Effectively stranded in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport by the US cancelling his passport, Snowden did not board his booked onward flight to Havana the following day. It was not clear whether different airlines would accept Snowden’s temporary travel documents and the US began issuing warning messages to a variety of potential destinations or stopover points. As with Iceland, it was a legal requirement that Edward Snowden be in Ecuador in order for his asylum request to be processed. President Rafael Correa stated his government would still consider Snowden’s application if he could reach an Ecuadorian embassy, saying: “the situation can be processed and resolved there” but that its assessment of the application “could take weeks or months”. He later clarified that Ecuador would not reissue authorised travel documents to extract Snowden from Moscow: “The right of asylum request is one thing, but helping someone travel from one country to another – Ecuador has never done this.”

The legal requirement to be within national territory before an asylum request can be processed is common to many countries and fears grew that the US might seek to prevent Snowden flying across its allies’ airspace to reach any Latin American countries willing to take him. These fears were realised when the plane of the Bolivian President Evo Morales en route from a Moscow summit was forced to land in Vienna, having been denied airspace transit by France, Spain, Portugal and Italy at the behest of the US on suspicion that Edward Snowden was on board (see Political interference for details).

President Evo Morales had previously indicated his openness to granting Edward Snowden asylum in Bolivia, but stated the formal request had not reached him yet: “If there were a request, of course we would be willing to debate and consider the idea.” Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro also stated he would look favourably on Snowden’s asylum request once it arrived: “No-one has asked us for now, but we say and advocate that someone in the world should stand with this young man and protect him, the revelations he has made with courage serve to change the world.” Both Nicaragua and Cuba made no immediate comment concerning Mr Snowden’s asylum requests, however Brazil quickly said it would not grant asylum, adding that it would leave the request unanswered. WikiLeaks’ publisher Julian Assange later commented that Brazil’s refusal was “disappointing”, especially in light of the fact that Edward Snowden’s revelations had exposed the extent to which the NSA targeted Brazilian communications networks, including that of Petrobras, the largest oil company in Brazil, and the entire contact network of President Dilma Rousseff, along with her top aides.

On 6 July 2013 Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia all confirmed they would offer asylum to Edward Snowden.

Requests for asylum made to European and Asian nations

Despite angry reactions from European leaders to news of the NSA surveillance targeting Europe that had been revealed by Edward Snowden, and loud denunciations of “espionage” by some European officials, Edward Snowden’s asylum requests to Europe were met with lukewarm statements or quickly refused.

Individual country responses

Austria: Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said Mr Snowden’s application for asylum was not legally valid because he had not applied in person inside the country. However, if he arrived in Austria he would not be deported as there was “no international warrant for him”.
Brazil: A foreign ministry spokesman said Brazil would not grant asylum, adding that it would leave the request unanswered.
China: Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had no information about Snowden’s asylum request.
Cuba: Cuba gave no immediate response to Mr Snowden’s asylum request, its embassy in Moscow declining to comment. However, Cuban president Raul Castro later offered his support for the “sovereign right” of Venezuela and other Latin American countries to grant Snowden asylum.
Finland: Finnish foreign ministry spokeswoman Tytti Pylkkö confirmed they had received a faxed asylum request but that Finnish law required Snowden to be in the country for him to apply.
France: France confirmed it had rejected a request for asylum from Edward Snowden, without citing precise reasons.
Germany: Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said he “could not imagine” that Edward Snowden’s asylum request would be approved. The interior and foreign ministries later issued a joint statement that they were rejecting Mr Snowden’s application and that “the conditions have not been met”.
India: Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin confirmed its embassy in Moscow had received an application for asylum, but “following careful examination we have concluded that we see no reason to accede to the Snowden request”.
Ireland: A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said it did not comment on individual asylum cases but that under Irish law asylum requests could only be accepted from people who had already landed in or were within the country.
Italy: Foreign Minister Emma Bonino stated that asylum requests had to be presented in person at the border or in Italian territory. “As a result there do not exist the legal conditions to accept such a request, which in the government’s view would not be acceptable on a political level either.”
Netherlands: Security and Justice Secretary Fred Teevan said Edward Snowden’s request would be denied because under Dutch law applicants cannot seek asylum when they are not physically present in the Netherlands.
Norway: Application denied, on the basis it needed to be made on Norwegian soil. Deputy Justice Secretary Paal Loenseth remarked: “The Norwegian authorities can theoretically permit entry to Norway and asylum to a person that we think is important for foreign political reasons but I can’t see any such reasons in this particular case.”
Poland: Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said on Twitter: “A document, that does not meet the formal conditions for an asylum request, has arrived but even if it did I won’t give a positive recommendation.”
Spain: Foreign Minister José García-Margallo stated: “For it [the application] to be legally admissible, it has to be made by a person who is in Spain.” A ministry official later clarified that Spanish embassies aren’t considered national soil for this purpose, only Spain’s own territory and its land borders.
Switzerland: Switzerland no longer accepts asylum applications at its embassies but asylum-seekers can apply for a three-month humanitarian visa to facilitate travel to Switzerland to fulfil the condition of being on Swiss soil. Valentina Anufrieva of Switzerland’s embassy in Moscow told reporters: “Only when the person’s life is in danger can we make an exception, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here.” Migration Department spokeswoman Celine Kohlprath confirmed Edward Snowden had not yet applied for a humanitarian visa.

There were calls – by the Norwegian PEN Society, a information rights group in Norway, and by German MPs – for formal review of their governments’ decision and suggesting legislation which could be used to facilitate granting Snowden asylum protection, but without success.

Temporary asylum granted in Russia

Edward Snowden made his first request for political asylum in Russia on 30 June 2013, which was delivered to Russian consular officials from the international transit section of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport by Sarah Harrison, a journalist and legal adviser with WikiLeaks. This was withdrawn following remarks by Russian president Vladimir Putin that Mr Snowden would only be welcome on condition he stopped “his work aimed at bringing harm to our American partners”. However, Mr Putin also reiterated that Russia has no extradition treaty with the US and that “Russia never gives anyone up and doesn’t plan to give anyone up… Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information. Ask yourself this: should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?”

Without a passport and with nations petitioned by Mr Snowden coming under intense political pressure from Washington, including threats of economic reprisals and the suspension of trade and airspace access, to prevent any from offering asylum and safe passage, onward travel was impossible. On 12 July 2013 Edward Snowden called a press conference at Sheremetyevo airport with representatives of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Transparency International, as well as Russian lawmakers and human rights activists including Sergei Nikitin, the head of Amnesty International’s Russia office, prominent Moscow lawyer Genri Reznik and Russia’s presidential human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin. At the meeting, Edward Snowden formally accepted all offers of support or asylum already received “and all others that may be offered in the future”. He went on to note that the US and some Western European countries had “demonstrated a willingness to act outside the law”, rendering him “stateless and hounded for my act of political expression” and unable to enjoy safe passage to Latin America, despite his formal asylee status following Venezuela’s grant of asylum on 6 July.

Snowden also announced his intention to apply for temporary asylum in Russia “until such time as… my legal travel is permitted”, receipt of which was confirmed by Russian officials on 16 July 2013. The request was granted on 1 August 2013 for a period of one year ending 31 July 2014 and includes the right to work and travel within the Russian Federation. Mr Snowden left the airport in a taxi accompanied by WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison for an undisclosed secure location.