By Lidia Kelly and Alessandra Prentice
MOSCOW | Fri Jul 12, 2013 8:59am EDT
(Reuters) – Former intelligence agency contractor Edward Snowden asked to meet human rights groups at a Moscow airport on Friday to discuss what he called threatening and illegal behavior by the United States to prevent him gaining asylum.
Human rights activists and lawyers arrived at the airport for what would be the first meeting of its kind since Snowden flew to Moscow from Hong Kong on June 23. He has been stranded in the transit area of Sheremetyevo airport ever since, unable to take up asylum offers from third countries.
Snowden, 30, has not been seen in public since his arrival, but Russian officials say he is still in the airport’s transit zone. President Vladimir Putin has shown impatience with the extended stay, but Snowden has no clear route to a safe haven.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered Snowden asylum, but he has not revealed his plans. Washington, which seeks to arrest Snowden on charges of espionage in divulging details of secret U.S. surveillance programs, has revoked Snowden’s passport and pressed nations not to take him in or help him travel.
“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 emailed letter said.
“The scale of threatening behavior is without precedent,” read the letter, a copy of which was posted on Facebook by Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of the Moscow office of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Airport officials invitees had been told to gather at the Soviet-built Terminal F building and would then be taken to a meeting closed to reporters.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirmed they had received the invitation, sent on Thursday afternoon.
STUCK AT SHEREMETYEVO
Some invitees speculated that Snowden, who revealed details of secret U.S. surveillance programs after working as a contractor at a U.S. National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, might ask for asylum in Russia.
Putin may have reveled in the discomfort of Russia’s former Cold War foe but he has kept Snowden at arms length. He says Snowden, not having passed through customs and passport control, has not formally entered Russian territory and should choose a final destination and travel as soon as possible.
The Kremlin said Snowden withdrew a request for asylum in Russia earlier this month after Putin said Russia would not take him in unless he stopped activities aimed at “harming our American partners”.
Russia may want him out before it hosts finance ministers from the G20, which includes the United States, next week.
Putin’s spokesman said on Friday that Snowden had not asked to meet anyone from the presidential administration and that Putin was not involved in deciding Snowden’s fate.
“We don’t know anything. It’s not an issue that’s on the president’s agenda,” said Dmitry Peskov.
Snowden’s options for getting to Latin America or anywhere else are limited.
There are no direct commercial flights from Moscow to Venezuela, Nicaragua or Bolivia, and any flight over the United States, or those of an ally, could be fraught with risk.
Bolivian President Evo Morales’s official jet had to land in Austria after departing from Moscow, amid suspicions that Snowden was on board, triggering accusations that Washington had asked European countries to bar the flight from their airspace.
“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,” the invitation to the meeting with Snowden said.
“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.”
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Steve Gutterman, Ralph Boulton)