Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who's been an unseen presence in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for almost three weeks now, suddenly went public Friday to ask Russian human rights activists for assistance in gaining temporary asylum in Russia.
Among the dozen human rights leaders who met Mr. Snowden behind closed doors were Amnesty International's Sergei Nikitin and Human Rights Watch's Tanya Lokshina, some of whom forwarded information to journalists via Twitter and Facebook about the meeting's progress. Vladimir Lukin, Russia's presidential human rights ombudsman, and Genri Reznik, a prominent lawyer, also attended.
A photograph of the meeting, published by Ms. Lokshina, shows a gaunt but healthy-looking Snowden sitting at a desk with Ms. Lokshina and other human rights workers.
"I have been made stateless and hounded for my act of political expression," Snowden said. According to the reports, Snowden said that he is prepared to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin's condition that he may remain in Russia, but only if he stops "hurting our American partners" with damaging leaks of secret national security documents.
"Snowden said that he plans to seek temporary asylum in Russia, then go somewhere in Latin America eventually. On a personal note he said living conditions at the airport were fine, and that he feels safe," Lokshina posted on the HRW website.
He reportedly asked the Russian human rights workers to assist him in convincing Russian authorities to grant him refuge, adding that "no actions I take or plan are meant to harm the US." In fact, he reportedly added, "I want the US to succeed."
Russia has been visibly ambivalent about Snowden's presence in Moscow. On one hand the fugitive former CIA employee has been embraced by large numbers of Russians, including many parliamentarians, who see him as a hero who's ripped away the US mask of democracy and freedom and exposed the underlying reality of globe-spanning duplicity.
On the other hand, the Kremlin has held him at arm's length and top officials, including Mr. Putin, have urged him to move along as quickly as possible. A former KGB agent, Putin's distaste for an idealist who proclaims the goal of total information transparency and, by his own account, refuses to work with any intelligence agencies, has been difficult to conceal.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that no fresh appeal for asylum from Snowden had yet been received.
But Mr. Peskov told journalists that if Putin's conditions are met, Snowden would probably be welcome to remain in Russia.
"Snowden, by sincere conviction or for some other reason, considers himself to be a human rights activist, a fighter for the ideals of democracy and human freedom. Russian human rights activists and organizations, as well as their colleagues abroad acknowledge this. For this reason, extraditing Snowden to a country like the US where capital punishment is enforced is impossible," the English-language Kremlin-funded TV network RT quoted Peskov as saying.
In a letter released to the media Friday, Snowden hailed the small group of Latin American nations that have offered to give him asylum – Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua – but said he was not able to accept any of them due to US efforts to block his ability to travel.
"Unfortunately, in recent weeks we have witnessed an unlawful campaign by officials in the U.S. Government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The scale of threatening behavior is without precedent: never before in history have states conspired to force to the ground a sovereign President's plane to effect a search for a political refugee. This dangerous escalation represents a threat not just to the dignity of Latin America or my own personal security, but to the basic right shared by every living person to live free from persecution," Snowden wrote.
In a longer statement, published by WikiLeaks on Friday, Snowden added that he would attempt to stay in Russia until a safe path to Latin America becomes open.
"[The] willingness by powerful states to act extra-legally represents a threat to all of us, and must not be allowed to succeed. Accordingly, I ask for your assistance in requesting guarantees of safe passage from the relevant nations in securing my travel to Latin America, as well as requesting asylum in Russia until such time as these states accede to law and my legal travel is permitted. I will be submitting my request to Russia today, and hope it will be accepted favorably," he said.