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Edward Snowden gets temporary asylum in Russia

MOSCOW — Brushing aside pleas and warnings from President Barack Obama and other senior American officials, Russia granted Edward J. Snowden temporary asylum and allowed him to walk free out of a Moscow airport transit zone on Thursday, ending his legal limbo there after more than five weeks.

Russia's decision, which infuriated U.S. officials, significantly alters the legal status of Snowden, the former intelligence analyst wanted by the United States for leaking details of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. Even as those leaks continued, Snowden now has legal permission to live — and conceivably even work — anywhere in Russia for as long as a year, safely out of the reach of U.S. prosecutors.

Snowden, 30, departed Sheremetyevo International Airport unexpectedly at 3:30 in the afternoon after his lawyer, Anatoly G. Kucherena, delivered to him a passport-like document issued by the Federal Migration Service on Wednesday and valid until July 31, 2014.

Kucherena said he would not disclose his whereabouts, though he expected Snowden could make a public appearance soon. "I cannot give out details," he said.

Snowden left the airport's transit zone alone, an airport official said, but the antisecrecy organization WikiLeaks later announced that he had left accompanied by one of the organization's representatives, Sarah Harrison, who apparently had remained with him since his flight began in Hong Kong in June.

His asylum in Russia almost certainly will sorely strain relations with the United States, where lawmakers have called for harsh retaliation against Russia, even a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games to be held in Sochi.

Although President Vladimir Putin and Obama both sought to avoid a direct diplomatic clash over Snowden, Putin and other officials here made clear they would under no circumstance extradite him, despite direct appeals from Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

As recently as this week, U.S. officials remained hopeful that some sort of agreement to return Snowden to the United States could be reached, according to officials in Washington and Moscow.

One of Putin's aides, Yuri V. Ushakov, said Thursday that Snowden's fate was of "insignificant character" and thus would not affect relations, according to the state news agency, RIA Novosti. He added that the Kremlin was aware of reports that Obama might cancel a planned meeting with Putin in Moscow in September but had received no official notification from officials in Washington.

Putin, who spent the day at his official residence on the outskirts of Moscow, meeting with the president of Tajikistan, learned of Snowden's release on Thursday, the Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said. He added that the decision had been made by immigration officials and not by Putin, though it is widely assumed here that any decision with such potentially severe diplomatic consequences would require approval from within the Kremlin.

"It has nothing to do with the president or his administration," Peskov said in a telephone interview.

The Kremlin, he said, continues to prepare for Obama's visit to Moscow to meet with Putin after attending the annual summit of the Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg in early September. And while he said that Russia believed in the importance of relations for regional and global security, he shifted the burden of sustaining the relationship onto the Obama administration. "You cannot dance tango alone," he said.

Putin, for his part, has sent contradictory signals during the course of the Snowden saga, which began eight weeks ago when Snowden was hiding in Hong Kong and then flew to Moscow on June 23, one step ahead of an extradition request by the Justice Department.

The Russian leader suggested early on that Snowden should leave Russia quickly and later called him an "unwanted Christmas present," though he blamed the Obama administration for stranding him in Moscow by revoking his passport and pressuring other countries to block any efforts by him to seek exile in Ecuador, Bolivia and other Latin American countries that have said they would consider accepting him.

Snowden could still decide to seek permanent asylum in another country. According to Kucherena, he has not officially applied for permanent political asylum in Russia and could simply remain until he is able to fly elsewhere.

After Snowden's departure from the Moscow airport on Thursday there was frenzied media speculation about his whereabouts — with one specious report that he was headed to a notorious expatriate bar known as the Hungry Duck that had in fact closed. Where he was or would stay remained unclear on Thursday evening.

Snowden's official arrival in Russia was cheered by many here who, like those in the United States and other countries, have defended his decision to leak the secrets of U.S. surveillance. Ivan I. Melnikov, a senior Communist Party member of Parliament and a candidate for mayor of Moscow in next month's election, called him a hero.

"Frankly speaking," Melnikov said, according to the Interfax news agency, "he is also like a balm to the hearts of all Russian patriots."

Pavel Durov, the founder of the most prominent Russian online social network, VKontakte, even invited Snowden to join his company and help to create new security measures. "Snowden might be interested in working to protect the personal data of millions of our users," he wrote.

Ludmila Alekseyevna, the head of the Russian Helsinki Committee, told Russian news organizations that she welcomed the government's decision to grant Snowden temporary refugee status. "I am satisfied that this happened and that Snowden received asylum in Russia," Interfax quoted her as saying.

Beyond the temporary refugee certificate, it was unclear whether the Russian government would play any formal role in sheltering Snowden, like providing housing, which might be seen by American diplomats as a further affront to the United States.

Kucherena took pains to say that he had not helped Snowden with a place to stay outside the airport and suggested that Snowden had made his own arrangements. "Questions of his security and questions of his living arrangements, all of that is up to him," Kucherena told the Interfax news agency. "He will take care of this himself."

In a Twitter account posting WikiLeaks said: "We would like to thank the Russian people and all those others who have helped to protect Snowden. We have won the battle — now the war."

WikiLeaks later quoted Snowden as thanking Russia "for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations." "Over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end, the law is winning," the statement quoted him saying.

Edward Snowden gets temporary asylum in Russia 08/01/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 1, 2013 1:51pm]
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