Snowden's grant of political asylum in Russia expires Thursday, and although Moscow authorities may approve the extension he requested this month, the 31-year-old "surely doesn't want to spend the rest of his life being hunted," Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in an interview with the DPA news agency [link in German].
Snowden, who is wanted on U.S. espionage and theft charges, has been living in obscurity in Russia since being granted a one-year term of temporary asylum on Aug. 1, 2013. The former National Security Agency contractor absconded with millions of classified documents on his laptops when he fled his job in Hawaii last year.
The data analyst first turned up in Hong Kong, where he revealed what he considered excessive intrusion on private communications in the NSA's counter-terrorism surveillance. He then flew to Moscow with the intent to travel on to Latin America and claim political asylum, but was thwarted when the U.S. government canceled his passport during the flight from Hong Kong.
Snowden was holed up at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport for more than a month last summer before Russian President
German opposition politicians have been campaigning for months to bring Snowden from Russia to Berlin to testify before a parliamentary committee investigating U.S. surveillance practices involving Germans' private communications.
The governing coalition headed by Chancellor
Snowden is regarded in many left-wing and libertarian circles as a hero for exposing the breadth of NSA intrusion on private communications around the world, including reports of wiretaps on the private phones of Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
"It's a disgrace for the Western democracies — for Germany but also for the U.S. — that someone like Snowden needs to be taken in by a despotic ruler like Vladimir Putin, because he can't get refuge in Germany or in the U.S.," Greens Party lawmaker Konstantin von Notz told Deutsche Welle on Tuesday.
Snowden has expressed interest in appearing before the German NSA inquiry committee, of which Von Notz is a member. But he has refused to testify by remote video linkup, insisting that he needs to provide his evidence of excessive U.S. surveillance in person.
A new espionage scandal this month led to Germany expelling the CIA station chief from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin over accusations that he had recruited two government officials to spy for Washington.
As public outrage mounted, Al Jazeera news agency appealed in an editorial for Berlin to grant political asylum to Snowden to demonstrate its dismay over the reports of U.S. snooping.
"There appeared to be no limit to the disrespect that Germany was willing to endure at the hands of its longtime ally across the Atlantic," Al Jazeera commented, dismissing the expulsion of the U.S. diplomat as "merely symbolic."
Granting Snowden refuge, the agency opined, would be "a concrete, constructive step in the direction of addressing the problem of the world's powers' out-of-control data gathering at both the diplomatic and private level."
Justice Minister Maas's advice to Snowden to seek some agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that would allow him to return home was seen as a rejection of the notion that Germany would take in the fugitive against U.S. wishes.
Snowden has hinted that he would like to return to the United States if he would be assured of fair treatment in the U.S. justice system. He told NBC's Brian Williams in an interview in May that there has never been "any question that I'd like to go home."
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