MOSCOW — 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.
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 since flying in 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, adding that if Snowden were granted temporary asylum, he should have the same rights as other citizens and be free to work and travel in Russia.
The asylum application could end his time in limbo but risks deepening tension between the United States and Russia, which has refused to expel him to his homeland but has also kept him at arm’s length, saying he has not crossed the border.
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 Moscow’s 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 nations 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,” said Kucherena, who said he had been advising Snowden since the airport meeting.
Putin has rejected U.S. calls to send Snowden to the United States, but has said he does not want the fugitive to harm relations with Washington. Ties have been strained over issues 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 President Barack Obama for a summit in Moscow in early September and both countries have signalled they want to improve ties.
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.
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.