Ecuador considering asylum for Snowden

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(CNN) — Edward Snowden may have no trouble staying longer in a Russian airport, and Ecuador wants the United States to argue in writing why he should not be given political asylum, the two countries said Wednesday.

The Ecuadorian government also took a swipe at Washington, rejecting what it called false and “detrimental” claims the U.S. government has made about Ecuador.

Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked U.S. surveillance secrets, is in the transit area, between arrival gates and passport checkpoints, at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described Snowden Tuesday as a “free man.”

“The sooner he selects his final destination point, the better both for us and for himself,” Putin said.

Snowden appears to have a transit visa, which foreigners need to stay in Russia for more than 24 hours en route to another country, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported Wednesday, citing a border guards spokesman.

Even if Snowden did not have a visa, he could face only a small fine of about $30, the news agency said.

Snowden flew to Moscow on Sunday from Hong Kong, where he had been hiding amid the international uproar caused by his leaks.

Snowden has requested political asylum in Ecuador, the country’s embassy in the United States said Wednesday.

“This request will be reviewed responsibly, as are the many other asylum applications that Ecuador receives each year,” Ambassador Efrain Baus, deputy chief of mission, said in a statement.

“The government of Ecuador has requested that the U.S. submit its position regarding this applicant in writing so that it can be taken into consideration as part of our thorough review process.”

The statement said Ecuador “strongly rejects recent statements made by United States government officials containing detrimental, untrue, and unproductive claims about Ecuador. Ecuador has signed all the human rights instruments of the Hemisphere and is fully committed to the rule of law and the fundamental principles of international law.”

The U.S. State Department recently criticized a new law in Ecuador, saying it could “restrict freedom of the press and limit the ability of independent media to carry out its functions as a critical part of Ecuador’s democracy.”

Ecuador has already offered WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange asylum if he can find a way out of the country’s embassy in London.

Relations between the United States and Ecuador have been tense for the past few years, a senior Obama administration official said. The United States was ejected from a forward operating base in the country, and a former U.S. ambassador was declared persona non grata after WikiLeaks released some of her cables saying the government tolerated police corruption.

The leak controversy

Snowden has acknowledged leaking classified documents about the NSA’s surveillance programs to the Guardian newspaper in Britain and The Washington Post.

The documents revealed the existence of programs that collect records of domestic telephone calls in the United States and monitor the Internet activity of overseas residents.

The disclosures shook the U.S. intelligence community and raised questions about whether the NSA is eroding American civil liberties.

Snowden worked as a Hawaii-based computer network administrator for Booz Allen Hamilton, an NSA contractor, before he fled to Hong Kong last month with laptops full of confidential information.

The South China Morning Post newspaper published a story Monday quoting Snowden as saying he took the job to gather evidence on U.S. surveillance programs.

Snowden told the Guardian that he exposed the surveillance programs because they pose a threat to democracy. Administration officials say the programs are vital to prevent terrorist attacks and are overseen by all three branches of government.

White House press secretary Jay Carney questioned Snowden’s assertion that he acted in defense of democratic transparency, saying his argument “is belied by the protectors he has potentially chosen — China, Russia, Ecuador.”

“His failures to criticize these regimes suggests that his true motive throughout has been to injure the national security of the United States, not to advance Internet freedom and free speech,” Carney told reporters.

If Snowden attempts to travel to Ecuador, his flight might have to stop first in a country that would send him back to the United States, a senior Obama administration official said. The plane might not be able to reach Venezuela or Cuba — two countries likely to help Snowden — without refueling elsewhere first.

Also, Ecuador has indicated it could take months to decide whether to offer Snowden asylum, the senior official said. And given that Putin apparently sees Snowden as a hot potato, “time is our friend,” the official said. “The Russians now just want him gone — and I’m not sure if they care at this point if he goes to a country that might be inclined to send him back.”

Separately Wednesday, Hong Kong’s secretary for justice pushed back against the assertion Monday by White House press secretary Jay Carney that letting Snowden leave for Moscow “was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant.”

“Up until the moment, the minute when Mr. Snowden left Hong Kong,” Secretary Rimsky Yuen told Reuters, “the American government did not respond to the Department of Justice’s request for further information. Therefore, under Hong Kong laws, the Department of Justice could not and did not have the legal basis to request a provisional warrant from the Hong Kong courts.

“Without a provisional warrant, the Hong Kong government does not have the legal basis to restrict or stop Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous Chinese territory. Carney has said that Hong Kong’s decision to let Snowden leave dealt efforts to build trust between the United States and China a “serious setback.”