WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder has told the Russian government that fugitive former security contractor Edward Snowden won’t be tortured or face the death penalty if he is returned to the U.S.
Holder offered the assurances to Russian authorities in a letter dated July 23 and released today by the Justice Department in a bid to persuade the country to turn down Snowden’s asylum request.
Holder said that Snowden isn’t charged with a capital crime and pledged not to seek a death sentence against him even if he is charged with additional violations that could carry the death penalty. He said that Snowden wouldn’t be compelled to answer questions and would be allowed representation by an attorney and a public trial.
“We believe that these assurances eliminate the asserted grounds for Mr. Snowden’s claim that he should be treated as a refugee or granted asylum, temporary or otherwise,” Holder wrote in the letter, addressed to Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov. Claims Snowden has made that he would be tortured by the U.S. government “are entirely without merit.”
Snowden’s presence at the Moscow airport has further strained relations between the U.S. and Russia weeks before President Obama is scheduled to meet with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in early September just ahead of a meeting of Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg.
Holder’s letter was reported earlier today by the Wall Street Journal.
Snowden, who arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on June 23, is awaiting a document from the Federal Migration Service that will enable him to cross Russia’s border and exit the airport, Anatoly Kucherena told reporters in Moscow earlier this week.
His efforts to reach a haven in Latin America have been blocked by the U.S. and its European allies. His U.S. passport has been revoked. Snowden applied for a 12-month renewable refugee status in Russia on July 16. Authorities have as long as three months to consider the request, according to Kucherena.
Holder said Snowden remains an American citizen and is eligible for limited travel documents that would allow him to return to the U.S.
“The United States is willing to immediately issue such a passport to Mr. Snowden,” Holder wrote.
The 30-year-old former U.S. contractor for the National Security Agency is charged with espionage and theft of government property in connection with his disclosure of two secret U.S. government surveillance programs. One collects the phone records of millions of U.S. citizens and another allows for targeted collection of Internet records of foreigners suspected of involvement in terrorism.
The Obama administration has repeatedly urged Russia to expel Snowden to the U.S. As the standoff has dragged on, White House officials have repeatedly declined to confirm that the meeting with Putin will proceed.
Asked July 24 about a possible Obama-Putin meeting, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “The president intends to travel to Russia for the G-20 Summit, and as I’ve noted in the past, I have no further announcements to make about that travel.”
Canceling the summit, announced in June, would deal a blow to Obama administration efforts to smooth relations with Russia and would be a direct challenge to Putin’s prestige. Russia assumed the G-20 presidency for the first time last December and Putin is the host for the group’s annual summit.
Two senators, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have introduced a non-binding resolution urging Obama to consider recommending shifting the G-20 to another location if Russia doesn’t turn over Snowden to the U.S.