Russia extends Snowden’s temporary residency for ‘few more years’

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has had his temporary right to remain in Russia extended, according to a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman.

Maria Zakharova, director of press at Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, revealed the extension via comments on her Facebook, spotted earlier by The Guardian — writing that the deadline for Snowden to obtain a residence permit has just been extended “for a few more years”.

We’ve reached out to the Ministry, and to Snowden’s Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, for more details and will update this post with any response.

Following the US elections last fall commentators questioned what the incoming US president Donald Trump would mean for Snowden’s situation, given speculation about a close relationship between Trump and Russian’s president Putin.

But it looks like Putin has no immediate plans to hand Snowden over to Trump.

And according to comments made by Kucherena, quoted by the RT news agency, the whistleblower will have a legal route to apply for permanent citizenship in Russia in the near future (and should he wish to do so) — having lived in the country for almost four years without violating any laws or having any legal claims made against him.

Snowden last had his temporary asylum in Russia extended in mid 2014, when he was given leave to remain for three more years — after an initial year’s stay expired in July.

The whistleblower left US territory in May 2013, taking a cache of classified documents that revealed the extent of US and other government surveillance programs, and handing these to journalists in Hong Kong. He was subsequently stranded in Moscow airport, reportedly en route to South America, after the US canceled his passport. And has remained in Russia ever since, after being granted temporary residency by the government.

Zakharova revealed Snowden’s latest ‘leave to remain’ extension in a post on social media yesterday, responding to an article written by former CIA deputy director, Michael Morell, and published in The Cipher Brief on Sunday — in which Morell calls for Putin to hand Snowden over to Trump as “the perfect inauguration gift”.

“Seeing Snowden arrive in the U.S. and placed in handcuffs would go far in healing the wounds that exist between President-Elect Trump and his Intelligence Community.  The IC, more than anyone else, wants Snowden brought to justice,” writes Morell.

“To be clear, although I personally consider Snowden a traitor, I am willing to accept a jury’s verdict and, if guilty, a judge’s sentencing of him,” he adds. “I’m willing to allow our judicial system to decide whether Snowden is a hero for bringing to the public’s attention a program that indeed posed risks to civil liberties — but actually never violated any — or whether he is a traitor for broadly exposing national security secrets.  Let’s let the legal system, defined by our Constitution, provide that answer.”

Snowden has repeatedly said he would return to the US if the government would grant him a fair trial, allowing him to mount a public interest defense in front of a jury — rather than seeking to prosecute him under the Espionage Act (which does not allow such a defense).

In her post, Zakharova does not mince her words — describing Morell’s call for Putin to make Trump a “gift” of Snowden as “hate speech” which reveals an “ideology of betrayal”.

Snowden’s lawyer in Russia has also condemned Morell’s statement as “utter stupidity”.

Such responses underline the ongoing PR value that Snowden’s stay in Russia holds for Putin’s government — as a means to apply high level moral pressure to successive US administrations.

The Russian government also appears to be using the Snowden disclosures as a means to deflect from criticism of its own online activities. In a briefing at the end of last month, for example, Zakharova cited Snowden’s revelations about US surveillance programs in a rebuttal to Western accusations that Russia had been involved in hacking the US elections.

“Snowden’s accusations were backed with undeniable facts and exposed the US activities to create a global cyber-spying and cyberattack system,” she said then, adding: “There is only one country that is involved in cyberattacks, but there is no proof of its alleged crime. Instead of begging for forgiveness and stopping its doings in the global information space, Washington and its partners are working hard to shift the blame on Russia.”

Last September, human rights activists from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch launched a campaign asking outgoing US president Obama to pardon Snowden before he leaves office this month — arguing that Snowden’s actions didn’t harm but helped the US, going on to trigger surveillance reforms (even Morell concedes his actions “led to a public debate that resulted in some sensible changes”, though he argues “the totality of the disclosures by Snowden caused substantial damage to the overall national security of the United States”).

Yesterday, in one of his final acts as US president, Obama commuted the majority of a 35-year sentence handed down to former Army intelligence analyst and whistleblower, Chelsea Manning, who supplied diplomatic and military documents to WikiLeaks.

But there appears to be little chance of a last minute pardon for the NSA whistleblower from the outgoing Obama administration.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest recently noted what he dubbed a “stark difference” between the Manning and Snowden cases — emphasizing that Manning went through the military criminal justice process and “acknowledged wrongdoing” vs Snowden, in his words, fleeing “into the arms of an adversary” and seeking “refuge in a country that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy”.