At Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on Monday, Edward Snowden slipped through the net of the world’s media like the invisible man, with the fugitive whistleblower a no-show for the flight he was expected to take to Havana, Cuba. Ecuador is apparently the American’s final destination, with the country’s Foreign Minister confirming that Mr Snowden has lodged an application for political asylum. How he plans to reach the country remains a mystery.
With the 2pm departure time drawing near there was a furious scramble as journalists were instructed not to film around the departure gate, with some even having footage forcibly wiped from their cameras. But despite the circus there was no sign of the former National Security Agency contractor. Eventually, the plane’s doors closed and the dozens of Russian and international journalists already on board realised that seat 17A was empty and they were travelling to Havana without the man they had all been chasing. Sources at the airport thereafter gave a series of conflicting updates to Russian news agencies: Mr Snowden had already left the country; Mr Snowden was still in the hotel; Mr Snowden was booked on a later Aeroflot flight to Cuba.
Half a day on, when SU150 landed in Havana, there was still no sign of the 30-year-old. The flight crew were also said to have denied Mr Snowden's presence on the aircraft.
Mr Snowden’s whereabouts have created diplomatic tension alongside the intrigue, after Washington revoked his passport after he left Hong Kong. A White House spokesman said the US expected Russia to send him back, and registered strong objections with China and Hong Kong for letting him go. “We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official,” Jay Carney said. “This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the US-China relationship,” he said.
During a trade mission to India yesterday US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “We don’t know, specifically, where [Snowden] may head... It would be deeply troubling, obviously, if they [Russia and China] had adequate notice, and … they made the decision wilfully to ignore that and not live by the standards of the law.” Russian officials said that after the recent passage of the Magnitsky Act, which bans certain Russian officials from entry to the US, Moscow was in no mood to co-operate.
A New York Times report quoted an unnamed source saying that Mr Snowden had been staying in a government-owned apartment in Hong Kong before he fled. He had apparently been compelled to seek sanctuary in the safe house after journalists found out which hotel he had been staying in. Hong Kong lawmaker Albert Ho said that he believed Beijing was behind the decision to allow Mr Snowden to fly out, claiming that a Chinese government intermediary called Mr Snowden and told him to leave, guaranteeing him safe passage. As the hours passed yesterday some began to question whether Mr Snowden was in Moscow at all. But his presence was later confirmed by Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, Ricardo Patino, who gave a news conference during a visit to Hanoi, Vietnam.
“As we all know, he arrived in Russia,” he said, after reading out the whistleblower’s asylum application. He declined to say where Mr Snowden was but confirmed that his application had not yet been ruled on. He did, however, use the occasion to deliver a stinging critique of US foreign policy and the surveillance techniques which Mr Snowden uncovered. “In the last few days the word ‘treason’ has been mentioned,” Mr Patino said. “But is it the people who have been betrayed, or certain elites?”
In his asylum application Mr Snowden’s compares himself to WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning and maintains that he would not receive “humane treatment” prior to any US trial, claiming that he could be sentenced to death. He has been charged with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence in relation to his leaks of NSA material, each of which carries a potential 10-year sentence.
Ecuador has already given asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is in the country’s London Embassy. Mr Assange, whose anti-secrecy group has helped Mr Snowden with his transit plans and legal assistance, said last night that Mr Snowden was in “good health” in a safe place, but again declined to say where.
Mr Assange staged a conference call, in which he updated the world on what he knows of Snowden's situation. Sarah Harrison, who works for Wikileaks, is thought to be travelling with the fugitive.
Assange said that the organisation had paid Snowden's travel and living expenses since he left Hong Kong.
He said: "We are aware of where Edward Snowden is. He is in a safe place and his spirits are high. Due to the bellicose threats coming from the US administration we cannot go into further detail at this time.
"In relation to Hong Kong Mr Snowden was supplied with a refugee document of passage by the Ecuadoran government."
When asked if Snowden had been questioned by the Chinese authorities before leaving Hong Kong, Assange said: “As far as I am aware that is false.”
He added that there was no communication between Snowden and Russian officials before he departed from Hong Kong.