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Airport prisoner

Roman Goncharenko / mllJune 26, 2013

The fugitive former CIA employee Edward Snowden seems to be stuck in transit. He can't get further since he doesn't have a valid passport. The case is putting a strain on US-Russian relations.

A television screen shows former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden during a news bulletin at a cafe at the Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Image: Reuters

In the Hollywood film "Terminal," a traveler from Eastern Europe, played by Tom Hanks, has to live for months in the transit area of JFK Airport in New York. The reason for his predicament was that his passport was invalid.

The former CIA employee Edward Snowden has the same problem: following his revelations about US Internet surveillance, the US has canceled his passport. Ever since he told the world about the National Security Agency's wide-ranging snooping activities, he's been on the run. On Sunday (23.06.2013) he arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong. International media reported that he wanted to fly from there to Cuba or Ecuador.

He hasn't done so yet. On Wednesday, the Russian news agency Interfax quoted an anonymous source that he couldn't buy a ticket because he didn't have a valid passport. On Tuesday, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin confirmed that Snowden was still in the transit area of Sheremetyevo Airport, northwest of Moscow. Neither story has been confirmed by independent sources. It's not clear exactly where Snowden is.

A welcome catch

Gerhard Mangott, Russia expert at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, has his doubts about Putin's version. "I assume Snowden isn't in the transit area at Sheremetyevo," he told Deutsche Welle. He's probably at some secret address being interrogated by the Russian authorities: "The Russians won't pass up such an opportunity." Putin has denied any such suggestion.

A plane en route to Cuba takes off from Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, June 24, 2013. There was no sign that former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden was onboard REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
Snowden was believed to be on this plane to Cuba, but his seat was emptyImage: Reuters

Gerhard Simon, Eastern Europe expert at the University of Cologne, is also skeptical: "We don't know whether Snowden is in Sheremetyevo." He's a prisoner of Russia, since he needs Russian help to travel further.

Mangott describes him as "a fish which has unexpectedly swum into the net of the Russian intelligence service." He thinks that Putin probably feels some "personal satisfaction" at the situation. Only a few years ago, a Russian spy-ring was uncovered in the US - now Moscow can get its own back.

Straining relations with the US

The US has demanded Snowden's extradition and threatened consequences. Putin said on Tuesday that extradition was not possible, since there was no extradition treaty between the US and Russia, and Snowden hadn't broken any Russian laws.

Putin speaking about the case on Tuesday KIMMO MANTYLA/AFP/Getty Images)
Putin has said he can't help, and he probably doesn't want toImage: Kimmo Mantyla/AFP/Getty Images

Simon told DW that the latter argument was hypocritical: "International arrest warrants are always based on the idea that another country is accusing someone of a crime which has to be investigated."

The case is straining relations between the two countries, which have become increasingly tense since Putin returned to the presidency a year ago anyway. Disagreements on Syria and on US missile defense plans in Europe have led to an icy atmosphere.

At the end of 2012, the two countries played legal tit-for-tat: the US passed the so-called Magnitski law, which imposed travel bans on officials who were believed to have been responsible for the death of a dissident lawyer in prison; Russia responded with a ban on the adoption of Russian children by American parents.

No asylum for Snowden in Russia

Mangott fears that the US could now pass further laws, which could have "serious consequences for bilateral relations." Some US senators have demanded a tough response. Mangott assumes Russia will let Snowden move on, in order to avoid such repercussions.

Simon, too, doesn't think that Snowden will remain in Russia - it's not in Moscow's interest to risk long-term damage to relations. Incidents of spying between the two countries have always ended the same way: "Looking back, one can say that such spying cases have never done much damage to relations in the long term."