By Lidia Kelly and Maria Tsvetkova
Ex-intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, encamped at a Russian airport evading the reach of U.S. authorities, said on Friday he had sacrificed a comfortable life in disclosing U.S. spying secrets but had no regrets.
“A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise,” he said in first public remarks on what he sees as the personal cost of incurring Washington’s anger in disclosing details of U.S. electronic surveillance programmes.
“I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates,” he told human rights activists at the Moscow airport where he has lived since arriving from Hong Kong on June 23.
Snowden, 30, in remarks relayed by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks, said he would seek temporary asylum in Russia. Until now he has been living in the transit area of Sheremetyevo airport without having gone through passport control.
Russian authorities said he should not harm the interests of the United States if he wants refuge in Russia – a condition set by President Vladimir Putin.
“Snowden is serious about obtaining political asylum in the Russian Federation,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Kremlin lawmaker who attended the meeting with Snowden, who had not been seen in public since arriving from Hong Kong.
Participants of the meeting said Snowden would seek to travel on to Latin America. It was unclear when that might happen, or how.
“He wants to move further on, he wants to move to Latin America – he said it quite clearly,” Tanya Lokshina, deputy head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
“But in order to be guaranteed safety here in Russia, the only way for him to go was to file a formal asylum plea.”
Russian officials have shown increasing impatience over Snowden’s stay, but it had also become clear that he has no easy route to a safe haven from Moscow.
Snowden’s predicament has thrust him into the hands of Russia as Washington and Moscow are seeking to improve relations that soured over issues including Syria and human rights since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012.
Putin has frequently accused the United States of double standards on human rights and has championed its critics, but he has invited President Barack Obama to Moscow for a summit in early September and does not want to ruin the chances for that.
Putin’s spokesman repeated earlier conditions that Snowden should stop harming the interests of the United States if he wants asylum.
“As far as we know, he considers himself a defender of human rights and a campaigner for democratic ideals,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Peskov said Snowden should “fully refrain from actions inflicting damage on our American partners and on Russian-American relations,” the Interfax news agency reported.
Nikonov said that this message had got through.
“I asked him if he was ready to give up his political activity against the United States. He said, ‘Definitely, yes, all this activity was in the past’,” the lawmaker said.
Peskov said he was unaware of a formal request for political asylum from Snowden, but he said would submit one on Friday. Putin has made clear Russia would not extradite Snowden to the United States.
After Snowden’s meeting, pro-Kremlin politicians lined up to cast the American as a rights activist who deserves protection because he could be charged in the United States with espionage, a crime that carries the death penalty.
“There is a really great risk that Edward Snowden is facing this very punishment,” Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, told state TV. “We simply can’t allow this.”
In the remarks released by Wikileaks, he cast himself in similar terms.
“I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing. I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell US secrets,” he said, according to the statement.
“That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets.”
Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch, said U.S. officials asked her to tell Snowden the United States does not see it that way.
“I was contacted on my phone on my way to the airport on behalf of the ambassador and they asked me to relay to Snowden the official position of the U.S. authorities – that he is not a whistleblower, but had broken the law and should be held accountable,” she said. She said she passed on the message.
A grainy picture of Snowden taken by one participant, with Wikileaks legal assistant Sarah Harrison to his right, soon surfaced on social media and news sites. He wore a grey shirt and looked in good health.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered Snowden asylum. Washington, which seeks to arrest Snowden on charges of espionage in divulging details of secret U.S. surveillance programmes, has revoked Snowden’s passport and pressed nations not to take him in or help him travel.
After the activists were led through a gray door marked “staff only”, Lokshina said they were put on a bus, driven around until they reached a different part of Sheremetyevo and taken to a room where Snowden was waiting.
The meeting was constantly interrupted by announcements of departures and arrivals, she said, prompting Snowden to quip: “I’ve gotten used to those.”