Snowden seeks asylum in Russia

Rossiya-1 television aired a video showing Edward Snowden's asylum application.

US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a US defence contractor during an interview with the Guardian in Hong Kong. Picture :AFP

MOSCOW - Former US 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.

The White House said Snowden is "not a dissident" and should be expelled and returned to the United States to face trial.

Snowden is seeking refuge in Latin America after leaking details of US government surveillance programmes, but has not risked taking any flight that might be intercepted by the United States. He flew into Moscow 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.

The asylum application could end Snowden's time in limbo but risks deepening US-Russian tensions. Russia has refused to expel him to his homeland but has also kept him at arm's length, saying he has not crossed its border because he remains in the international transit zone at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.

President Barack Obama's administration repeated its call for Russia to send Snowden back to the United States.

"He is not a human rights activist, he is not a dissident. He is accused of leaking classified information," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "He is a United States citizen who has been charged with crimes, and ... he should be afforded every bit of due process here in the United States. And he should return here to face trial."

DAMAGE CONTROL?

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.

The head of the FMS, Konstantin Romodanovsky, confirmed the agency had received Snowden's application.

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.

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.

"He fears torture or the death penalty may be applied to him (if extradited)," said Kucherena, who said he had been advising Snowden since the airport meeting.

PUTIN'S CONDITIONS

Putin rejected US calls to send Snowden home but has said he does not want the fugitive to harm relations with Washington, deepening fears for their strained ties over issues ranging 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 US government of preaching to the world about rights and freedoms it does not uphold at home.

Kucherena said Snowden had given him a verbal promise that he would stop activities directed against the United States.

The application, filed to the Federal Migration Service by "Edward Joseph Snowden, United States citizen", read:

"I hereby request you consider the possibility of granting to me temporary asylum in the Russian Federation."

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.