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Seeking asylum

Jennifer Fraczek / bkJune 14, 2013

Whistleblower Edward Snowden is on the run - he fled to Hong Kong after exposing secret US surveillance practices. But what other countries take in political fugitives like him, and what are their motives?

A picture of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), is seen on a computer screen displaying a page of a Chinese news website (photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee)
Image: Reuters

Former CIA employee Edward Snowden, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng, Venezuelan opposition leader Carlos Ortega - even in recent times there have been several prominent examples of people looking for asylum in one country because they fear punishment in another.

Snowden has fled to Hong Kong, the other three fled to the embassies of countries which would, for the time being, leave them alone. Chen Guangcheng was eventually allowed to travel to the US, while Ortega went to Costa Rica.

Assange, meanwhile, has spent the past year in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. There is a Swedish arrest warrant - on a charge of rape - out on him. Assange fears that he will be deported from Sweden to the US to spend several years in jail for releasing thousands of secret US military documents and diplomatic cables.

'Every state can decide for itself'

Ecuador has granted him asylum - but to what extent can any country determine whether it should grant a fugitive asylum or not?

"In principle, any state can decide for itself who it grants political asylum to - unless there is an international agreement that rules it out," says international law expert Thilo Marauhn of the University of Giessen, Germany. In other words, if a country has signed the Geneva Convention on the status of refugees, and the person in question is being pursued because of his political convictions, then that country must grant his or her request for asylum. That duty does not hold if the country does not support the convention or the person in question is not a political refugee.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gives a thumbs up sign after speaking to the media outside the Ecuador embassy in west London (photo: REUTERS/Olivia Harris)
Assange has been in the Ecuadorean embassy in London for a yearImage: REUTERS

Even if there is no duty to grant asylum, the country still has the option of taking someone in. Then much depends on whether there or not there is an extradition treaty. According to the extradition treaty between the US and Hong Kong, for example, Hong Kong has the option of refusing extradition if there is a suspicion that Snowden is being persecuted for his political convictions.

"Edward Snowden can have that examined in a court case," Marauhn told DW. "But my guess is that he won't be successful, and will only be able to delay his extradition."

Political exploitation

In the case of Snowden, there is nothing for it but to wait and see, particularly as no charges have even been brought against him yet. Assange has already advised him to seek asylum in Ecuador, and Russia is apparently also considering whether to take him in.

The fact that states which, according to human rights groups, themselves have a limited freedom of opinion are declaring that they could take Snowden in is partly down to the political message that such a step would send.

"That other countries are doing that is down to the fact that normally democratic states grant asylum to political refugees from places like China, Myanmar, Russia, and elsewhere," Sylke Tempel of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) told DW. "If they take in fugitives from the US, it means they want to say, 'Look, Americans, apparently your freedom isn't that great either, because you pursue political refugees too.'"

A woman walks past an edition of the South China Morning Post carrying the story of former US spy Edward Snowden on its front page in Hong Kong (photo: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
No charges have been brought against Snowden yetImage: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

The case of Bobby Fischer

The question of asylum or extradition has been a bone of diplomatic contention for some time - even when those being sought are war criminals and despots. The former East German leader Erich Honecker, for instance, spent six months in the Chilean embassy in Moscow in 1991 before being extradited back to Germany.

After World War II, several Nazis found shelter in Latin America. Paraguay, for example, which lived under the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, a military officer of German heritage, from 1954 to 1989, became a favored destination of German Nazis and fallen South American dictators.

A more surreal case was that of US chess world champion Bobby Fischer, who fell out with his home nation and finally found asylum in Iceland - though Icelandic officials at the time emphasized that the country was acting out of solidarity with an exceptional grand master, and not out of sympathy with his - eccentric - political views.