WHISTLEBLOWER Edward Snowden was last night preparing to depart Russia for Cuba – and ultimately a final destination belived to Ecuador – after WikiLeaks brokered a deal to secure him political asylum.
Snowden touched down at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport yesterday afternoon and is believed to be due to set off for Havana later today.
Officials using a diplomatic car displaying the Ecuadorian flag met his plane in Moscow. It is believed that as he does not have a visa to remain in Russia, he would spend last night in the airport – where he met the Ecuadorian ambassador in an airport hotel to formally request political asylum.
“He is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks,” WikiLeaks said on its website last night.
An Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Havana is due to depart at 2:05pm today. Snowden’s final destination is believed to be the Ecuadorian capital of Quito. Ecuador – which houses Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy – is thought unlikely to comply with any US extradition request.
Snowden, 30, was charged with espionage in the United States after revealing details of internet and phone surveillance by US intelligence. He fled to Hong Kong at the end of May, before the first news stories relating to his leaks broke, and has since been hiding out in the city.
The US had wanted Snowden extradited, but the Hong Kong government said authorites in America had failed to meet its requirements.
It is understood that because Hong Kong had not yet issued an arrest warrant for Snowden, he was free to leave the country. He is likely to have travelled via Moscow because the country does not have an extradition treaty with the US.
He landed in Russia shortly after 5pm local time (2pm BST), escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks, including Assange’s girlfriend, Sarah Harrison, who was thought to have accompanied Snowden on the plane from Hong Kong to Moscow.
Authorities in Hong Kong said the US authorities had not given them enough information to comply with local legal requirements for the country to hand over Snowden.
“Mr Edward Snowden left Hong Kong today on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel,” the Hong Kong government said yesterday. “As the HKSAR government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.”
The White House said president Barack Obama was briefed on yesterday’s developments by his national security advisers.
Snowden’s departure came a day after the US made a formal request for his extradition and warned Hong Kong against delaying the process of returning him to face trial in the US. The justic department said it would “pursue relevant law enforcement co-operation with other countries where Mr Snowden may be attempting to travel.”
WikiLeaks has claimed credit for what it describes as acquiring “political asylum” for Snowden. Assange, who has spent a year in Ecuador’s London embassy resisting attempts by Sweden to pursue sexual assault allegations against him, has not made any direct comment about Snowden’s flight, although he did release a statement on Saturday – the anniversary of the day he entered the embassy – saying Snowden “is one of us”.
Former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, WikiLeaks’ legal director and lawyer for Assange, said in a statement: “The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr Snowden’s rights and protecting him as a person. What is being done to Mr Snowden and to Mr Julian Assange –for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest – is an assault against the people”.
Snowden worked in an NSA office in Hawaii, where he shared a flat with his girlfriend.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has said Russia would be willing to consider granting asylum if Snowden was to request it.