Snowden’s Flight Path Strewn With Obstacles


in Chicago
Questions swirled Wednesday over whether fugitive Edward Snowden, the admitted leaker of U.S. secrets, has a clear path to asylum in Ecuador.

As Russian officials reiterated that Mr. Snowden was in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, his ability to leave appeared to hinge on two points—whether there was a country that would allow him free transit on his way to Ecuador, which has said it would consider granting him asylum, and whether he had the temporary travel documents to get there.

Late Wednesday, Univision Networks posted images of what it said was a “safe pass” for temporary travel that had been issued to Mr. Snowden—a document he would need after U.S. officials said earlier this week they had canceled his passport. Word of such a pass echoed comments earlier this week by Julian Assange, the founder of antisecrecy group WikiLeaks, who said Ecuador had given Mr. Snowden a “refugee document of passage.”

But according to a senior official in Ecuador’s foreign ministry on Wednesday, Mr. Snowden had no such pass. “He does not have any documents issued by the government of Ecuador, such as a passport or a refugee identification,” said Galo Galarza, a senior ministry official. He didn’t provide additional details.

Also Wednesday, Ecuador’s foreign ministry said the country would consider whether to grant asylum to Mr. Snowden if he presents himself at one of the country’s diplomatic missions.

“If he goes to an embassy, we will make a decision.…But if he doesn’t, we cannot speculate about it,” Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said on an official visit to Malaysia. Even then, Mr. Patiño said, a decision could take a long time, as Ecuador is “still studying” the asylum request Mr. Snowden submitted. A message posted on Mr. Patiño’s Twitter feed said the decision could be “taken in one day, one week…or two months.”

Mr. Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on Sunday, according to WikiLeaks, which has said it is funding and guiding the 30-year-old’s attempted escape. The U.S., where authorities have filed espionage charges against Mr. Snowden, has demanded that international partners, including Russia, apprehend him. Russian President Vladimir Putin denied a U.S. request to expel Mr. Snowden, saying the U.S. fugitive is free to leave Sheremetyevo’s transit area and should get on his way.

An analysis of the commercial air routes available for a U.S. fugitive seeking to travel from Moscow showed that all necessary layover stops on the 7,000-mile route to Ecuador would be in countries that have extradition treaties with the U.S.—including Cuba, which has been working recently to improve U.S. ties and has so far received two flights from Moscow since Sunday without Mr. Snowden aboard.

“I think the fact that for three days in a row, Snowden hasn’t gotten on the plane to Cuba begins to tell us something about how welcome he is in Havana,” said Phil Peters, an analyst at the Cuba Research Center in Washington.

In Washington, Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said granting asylum to Mr. Snowden would imperil access to the U.S. market for Ecuadorean goods under a trade-preference regimen that must be renewed by Congress next month.

“Our government will not reward countries for bad behavior,” said Mr. Menendez in a news release. If Ecuador grants Mr. Snowden asylum, Mr. Menendez said he would lead the effort to cut Ecuador’s duty-free access to the U.S. market. “I urge President [Rafael] Correa to do the right thing by the United States and Ecuador, and deny Snowden’s request for asylum.”

Four cities in the world could serve as a one-stop connection between Sheremetyevo airport and Quito, Ecuador, on a passenger flight, including Miami, Amsterdam and Madrid.

The fourth is Havana. That appears to make one of the five weekly flights on Russian airline OAO Aeroflot to Cuba Mr. Snowden’s best bet to reach Ecuador on a commercial flight.

Cuba has a bilateral extradition treaty with the U.S. The treaty has been little used in recent decades, though, and the country has a history of sheltering U.S. fugitives, most of them dating from the 1970s, including convicted murderers to hijackers. But Havana, which has just concluded talks in Washington about renewing direct postal links and is scheduled to start talks on immigration next month, would be loath to jeopardize a warming trend between the two countries, said Mr. Peters of the Cuba Research Center. In 2006, in the State Department’s annual country report on terrorism, Havana said it would no longer provide safe haven to new fugitives, Mr. Peters noted.

“If that is the case, that’s what is applying to Snowden here,” he said.

Russia’s Mr. Putin has attempted to maintain some distance from Mr. Snowden, explaining that while the fugitive remains in the airport’s transit zone, he hasn’t crossed into Russian territory. But experts in international law say that while such zones are something of a no man’s land, they don’t operate outside a host country’s laws as would, for example, a diplomatic mission—meaning that there would be little stopping Cuba from seizing a fugitive in its own transit zone.

“The misperception is that people in this zone are immune and that this is some kind of special international territory, which it is not. Countries can exercise jurisdiction on a number of public-order or public-safety issues,” said an international diplomat working on relocating refugees.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has also said he would consider an asylum request from Mr. Snowden. However, like Ecuador, there are no commercial routes between Sheremetyevo airport and Venezuela that don’t require a stop in a country that has an extradition treaty with the U.S.

Mr. Snowden could also reach Ecuador via a more elaborate route: A commercial cargo flight from Dakar, Senegal, to Quito. Senegal doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S. However, that scenario would require the cooperation of the German airline that operates the route, Deutsche Lufthansa LHA.XE -1.10% AG. A Lufthansa spokesman said the airline never transports civilians on its cargo flights and wouldn’t accommodate Mr. Snowden.

Only three or four private jets are capable of making a nonstop flight from Moscow to Quito. Only the largest jets from Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., the G650 or G550, would be able to make the flight comfortably, with ranges in excess of the 7,200 miles between the two capital cities. A Bombardier Global 6000 XRS could also make the trip with one or two passengers, little luggage and favorable winds, according to the operations director at PrivateFly, a booking service for aircraft charters based near London.

PrivateFly calculated that such a one-way door-to-door charter, including all expenses, would cost $212,000.

Instead of trying to reach Quito, Mr. Snowden could also try for refuge in an Ecuadorean embassy. Ecuador could try to transport him from the airport in a car with diplomatic license plates. But such a move would likely require Russia’s blessing, said Philip Trott, an immigration lawyer and London-based partner at Bates Wells Braithwaite. “He’d need to be granted permission to enter” the country through border control and a visa, Mr. Trott said. A diplomatic official who works on the international resettlement of refugees said Russia also could “lift the diplomatic recognition of the vehicle in two seconds.”

Mr. Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, received asylum from Ecuador in 2012 and has spent more than a year in the country’s embassy in London, beyond the reach of U.K. authorities who want to extradite him to Sweden to face sexual-assault allegations that he says are fabricated.

Mr. Assange, however, was able to walk into the embassy because he wasn’t in custody at the time. He spent about a month there before Ecuador granted him asylum.

One remaining option is for Mr. Snowden to apply for asylum in Russia. Though Mr. Putin has suggested he would rather see Mr. Snowden leave the country, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said Russia would consider an asylum application from the fugitive as it would any other.

—Paul Sonne in Moscow, Jon Ostrower in Chicago and Darcy Crowe in Quito, Ecuador, contributed to this article.
Write to Jason Ng at


Posted on June 27, 2013, in Government, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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