MOSCOW — Four days after saying he would seek temporary asylum in Russia, fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden finally did so Tuesday, after telling a pro-Kremlin lawyer that he fears for his life.
The next move is Russia’s. Moscow has sought to keep its distance from Snowden since he arrived at the transit zone at Sheremetyevo International Airport on June 23 — unwilling either to expel him to the United States or to let him enter Russian territory.
But since last week the Kremlin has evidently been preparing the way for an asylum request, as it became clear that Snowden has few options left.
Anatoly Kucherena, a member of Russia’s Public Chamber, a citizens’ advisory council, said he met with Snowden at the airport Tuesday, explained to him the rules governing temporary asylum, then watched as the American handed his application to a government official who had been invited to the airport to receive it.
Appearing on Russian TV, Kucherena said Snowden wrote that his life would be under threat in the United States and that he fears torture and persecution if sent home. He has been charged in the United States with violating the Espionage Act of 1917 for revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Other charges are possible.
Russia’s Federal Migration Service has up to three months to consider Snowden’s application, an official told the Itar-Tass news agency. Temporary asylum, by law, is good for one year, but it can be extended. If it is granted to him, Snowden would have the right to move freely within Russia.
For the time being, though, he faces a continued stay at Sheremetyevo or a move to a government shelter for refugees, the head of the Federal Migration Service’s Public Council, Vladimir Volokh, told the Interfax news agency.
Kucherena said Snowden has no specific plans to travel onward, but President Vladimir Putin said Monday that he doesn’t expect the American to stay in Russia for long, even if granted asylum. Snowden has said that he wants to take up residence in Venezuela or one of several other Latin American countries.
Tuesday was his 23rd day in the airport transit zone, where he has been stranded since arriving on a flight from Hong Kong.
Kucherena was among a group of Russian politicians, lawyers and human rights activists who met with Snowden on Friday at the airport. Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said that she went reluctantly and that the whole episode appeared to be stage-managed. She said the question of whether Snowden had discussed what he knows with Russian intelligence agents did not come up.
After the Friday meeting, a parade of Russian politicians urged the government to grant the asylum request, in what appeared to be a Kremlin-scripted attempt to make such a move inevitable. Russia has exploited U.S. embarrassment over Snowden, but comments by Putin and others suggest that the Kremlin expects diminishing returns from a protracted stay.
However, the U.S. government’s efforts to get Snowden back to the United States, including the application of heavy pressure on potential transit- and asylum-offering nations, have effectively trapped him in Russia, Putin said.