MOSCOW — Edward Snowden emerged from his airport hideaway Friday, telling rights groups that he wants temporary asylum in Russia but still hopes to travel to Latin America to avoid prosecution by U.S. authorities.
It was the world’s first glimpse of the man wanted for downloading national secrets, who has been holed up in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport since June 23.
He met a small group of human rights campaigners and lawyers at an undisclosed part of the airport at 5 p.m. local time (9 a.m. ET) Friday. How espionage relates to human rights is unclear.
Although the meeting was not public, some of those present posted details to Twitter, including Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch who released a handout image that she said was of Snowden.
Lokshina said Snowden would be making an official request to Russia for temporary asylum, adding that his condition was “just fine.”
The move indicates the difficulties facing Snowden, who has been offered asylum by three countries: Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. He is apparently unable to travel to them without entering airspace controlled by the U.S., risking an enforced grounding that would lead to his arrest.
Due to protections offered by international aviation rules, a commercial flight may be Snowden’s best bet for a ticket to asylum, trumping private jets or government planes.
Commercial carriers have the freedom to use airspace of other countries, known as the First Freedom of the air, the centerpiece of a complex but well-established system that keeps global air transportation running smoothly.
“One of the principles of the Chicago Convention system is that commercial carriers have the right of overflight, or the right to do things like stop for fuel, without seeking permission from the country over which they are flying,” said aviation lawyer Simon Phippard of UK-based law firm Bird & Bird.
Government aircraft, on the other hand, technically need permission before they can legally enter a foreign country’s airspace. Any doubts that U.S. allies would bar Snowden’s way ended last week when several European countries barred Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane from entering their airspace when he was travelling home from Moscow.
Also among those present at Friday’s meeting was a prominent Russian lawyer, Genri Reznik, who later told reporters: “I think his claim should be satisfied… The law allows for political asylum.
“The values in the constitution of the US and Russia are similar, so I don’t think that there could be a lengthy conflict if Russia grants him asylum.”
Earlier, Snowden released an open letter through the rights groups in which he railed against the U.S., accusing Washington of “threatening behavior.”
“I have been extremely fortunate to enjoy and accept many offers of support and asylum from brave countries around the world,” Snowden wrote in the letter. “These nations have my gratitude, and I hope to travel to each of them to extend my personal thanks to their people and leaders.
“By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world. Unfortunately, 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.
Russia has already indicated it would like Snowden to accept one of the asylum offers and leave the airport as soon as possible. Experts say it is possible Snowden could refuse all the offers and formally enter Russia, creating a potential diplomatic headache for Putin who would have to choose whether to hand the leaker over to U.S. prosecutors.