MOSCOW — Edward Snowden emerged from his airport hideaway Friday, telling rights groups that he wants temporary asylum in Russia but still hopes to travel to Latin America to avoid prosecution by U.S. authorities.
It was the world’s first glimpse of self-declared leaker, who has been holed up in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport since June 23.
He met a small group of human rights campaigners and lawyers at an undisclosed part of the airport at 5 p.m. local time (9 a.m. ET) Friday.
Although the meeting was not public, some of those present posted details to Twitter, including Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch who released a handout image that she said was of Snowden.
Lokshina said Snowden would be making an official request to Russia for temporary asylum, adding that his condition was “just fine.”
The move indicates the difficulties facing Snowden, who has been offered asylum by three countries: Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. He is apparently unable to travel to them without entering airspace controlled by the U.S., risking an enforced grounding that would lead to his arrest.
Also among those present at Friday’s meeting was a prominent Russian lawyer, Genri Reznik, who later told reporters: “I think his claim should be satisfied… The law allows for political asylum.
“The values in the constitution of the US and Russia are similar, so I don’t think that there could be a lengthy conflict if Russia grants him asylum.”
Earlier, Snowden released an open letter through the rights groups in which he railed against the U.S., accusing Washington of “threatening behavior.”
“I have been extremely fortunate to enjoy and accept many offers of support and asylum from brave countries around the world,” Snowden wrote in the letter. “These nations have my gratitude, and I hope to travel to each of them to extend my personal thanks to their people and leaders.
“By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world. Unfortunately, in recent weeks we have witnessed an unlawful campaign by officials in the U.S. government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It’s believed NSA leaker Edward Snowden is holed up inside this hotel at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. NBC’s Jim Maceda reports.
“The scale of threatening behavior is without precedent: never before in history have states conspired to force to the ground a sovereign president’s plane to effect a search for a political refugee,” he added, referring to the grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ jet in Austria last week amid suspicions that the leaker was on board.
“This dangerous escalation represents a threat not just to the dignity of Latin America or my own personal security, but to the basic right shared by every living person to live free from persecution,” Snowden said.
Amnesty International last week called on the U.S. not to “persecute” Snowden by pressuring other countries into handing him over to authorities.
Russia has already indicated it would like Snowden to accept one of the asylum offers and leave the airport as soon as possible. Experts say it is possible Snowden could refuse all the offers and formally enter Russia, creating a potential diplomatic headache for Putin who would have to choose whether to hand the leaker over to U.S. prosecutors.
A crowd of reporters in Cuba greeted an Aeroflot flight from Moscow on Thursday after its flight path appeared to avoid U.S. airspace, prompting speculation Snowden was on board, en route to Venezuela.
However, airline officials later confirmed Snowden had not been on the flight.
Speculation over the flight’s potential passenger coincided with a visit to Cuba by 20 international journalists, who had been invited to see the country’s economic reforms and rushed to the airport.
“It was a normal flight,” one male crew member told reporters as he pushed past the cameras.