To the chagrin, and the anger, of the U.S., Russia — quite likely with the direct approval of President Vladimir Putin — has granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden. The former NSA contractor who exposed extraordinary government surveillance of metadata for cell phone calls and online communication has spent over a month in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after leaving Hong Kong, where he had first gone public about the leaked files back in June.
Snowden’s U.S. passport has been cancelled and Anatoly Kucherena, his lawyer in Russia, said that he now has a temporary document with which he can cross the border into Russia. Kremlin officials say that immigration officials, not Putin, were involved in the decision “though it is widely assumed here that any decision with such potentially severe diplomatic consequences would require approval from the Kremlin,” comments the New York Times.
“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.”
“I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations.”
Russia did not seem to have warned the U.S. in advance about its decision. While some have speculated that the Russian government had been hiding Snowden, Kucharena denied such and said that Snowden will choose his own place of residence.
It goes without saying that Russia’s decision to grant Snowden asylum means that U.S.-Russia relations are now at a nadir recalling the Cold War era. President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend a summit with Putin at an upcoming G20 meeting in St. Petersburg in September but it is likely this could be cancelled. Obama’s attempts to improve relations with Russia have been criticized as “naive and inappropriate” by some, including Senator John McCain. In a statement on his website, McCain said that “Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States. It is a slap in the face of all Americans..”
Snowden’s leaks have more than revealed the very troubling extent of government surveillance and infringements on Americans’ right to privacy. But, as many have repeatedly pointed out, Russia has long been accused of numerous violations of human rights abuses — Snowden must be careful, if he can, not to become part of Putin’s propaganda.
1. A new law banning “homosexual propaganda” that effectively criminalizes gay identity
On July 11, the Russian Duma passed a law that bans the promotion of ”propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, as Care2 blogger Steve Williams wrote. In effect, the law bans “transmitting knowledge of homosexuality in the public sphere.” Russians who break the gay gag rule face harsh fines. Non-Russians can be detained and also charged with fines.
2. Serious concerns for the welfare of gay athletes who enter Russia
On Thursday, Russia’s minister of sports, Vitaly L. Mutko, said that gay athletes are welcome to attend the Games but that foreign athletes who come to Russia to compete would be expected to obey the gay gag rule or face criminal prosecution. Mutko’s comments are starkly in contrast to the International Olympic Committee saying last week that it had “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”
3. The prosecution and imprisonment of two Pussy Riot members
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, two members of the punk collective Pussy Riot, have been imprisoned in penal colonies after being convicted last August on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for performing a punk prayer on the altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in February of 2012. The two women, who both have young children, have been denied parole.
4. The charges against Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky
A whistleblower who charged that Kremlin insiders played a major role in a plan to defraud the Russian government of more than $200 million in taxes, Magnitsky died in a pretrial prison of untreated pancreatitis in 2009. Rather than investigate the allegations he had brought, the Russian government had simply arrested him. Magnitsky was posthumously convicted of tax evasion earlier this summer.
5. Show trials of activists arrested in the 2011 protests
Twelve Russians who were arrested at an anti-Putin rally last May went on trial in June. Ten appeared in the court in the glass cage or “aquarium;” their detention has been extended by six months. Two other activists remain under house arrest and cannot leave Moscow.
6. Systematic raids on foreign NGOs
Proverka means “audit” or “inspection” in Russian but, as Human Rights Watch says, in reality it is “more like a raid.” During a proverka, officials from a number of department — taxes, health, security, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Migration Service — “swoop down without notice into the office of a non-governmental organization and ask lots of questions and demand loads of documents.”
According to a recent remark by Russia’s prosecutor general, all that a proverka is meant to do is to help officials “get to know” what NGOs do. As a result of these audit/inspection/raids, there have been nine court cases against NGOs for various alleged violations.
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