Snowden’s dilemma: What are the possibilities for asylum?

If Edward J. Snowden, who says he leaked National Security Agency secrets, wants to stay out of the clutches of U.S. judicial authorities, his choices for seeking asylum are few and, literally, far between.

Only Iceland would seem to meet the conditions of the former CIA employee’s plan to seek haven in “countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy.”

The 29-year-old Snowden has reportedly called America’s spying capabilities “horrifying,” but the post-bipolar world is a much less friendly place for those whose offenses might be considered treason, even in the cause of revolution. The old Cold War refuge standbys – Russia and Cuba – are no longer keen to embarrass Washington by taking in someone like Snowden, whose apparent disclosure of classified information is anathema to virtually any government.


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On the surface, the possibilities for holing up abroad appear bountiful, as dozens of countries have no extradition treaty with the United States, and some that do – Iceland, for instance -- have applied their own standards of justice in deciding whether to send a fugitive home to face criminal prosecution. France, for instance, has refused to extradite director Roman Polanski since he fled the United States in 1979 to duck prison time for having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

Russia, which eagerly welcomed defectors in the Soviet era, is still home to a few Americans who fled espionage charges or alleged repression. While Moscow’s relationship with the United States remains fractious, the country isn’t known to have extended the welcome mat to American fugitives for the last two decades. And today’s Kremlin leadership, which prosecutes critics for far less serious political challenges, can hardly be called a champion of free speech and personal privacy.

Those who sought refuge in the Soviet Union, like spy suspects Edward Lee Howard of the CIA and U.S. Navy intelligence worker Glenn Michael Souther, didn’t live long, happy lives in exile. Former CIA agent Howard, who fled in 1985 as the FBI was about to arrest him, died in 2002 at age 50 after falling from a ladder. Souther committed suicide at age 32 in 1989, three years after seeking asylum in Russia.

Cuba in the early years of its communist revolution was a magnet for radicals and leftists as hostile relations with Washington shielded dozens who fled from the reach of U.S. law. Financier Robert Vesco, hijacker William Lee Brent and former CIA case officer and spycraft novelist Philip Agee lived for years on the tropical island before their deaths in the last decade.

Convicted murderer and prison escapee Joanne Chesimard, who now calls herself Assata Shakur, still lives in Cuba almost 30 years after seeking asylum from the life sentence she was given for killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. Now 65, Chesimard last month became the first woman to be put on the FBI’s Most Wanted terrorist list. That distinction could compromise her refuge if Cuba ever acts to get off the U.S. list of countries that are considered state sponsors of terrorism.

Cuba’s changed attitude toward law-breakers over the years has also confronted former Black Panther William Potts with a life far removed from what he expected when he hijacked a Miami-bound plane with 56 people on board in 1984 and flew into Havana. He was prosecuted for hijacking, as required by a 1971 U.S.-Cuban agreement intended to deter what had become an epidemic of hijackings in the 1960s.

Potts served 13 years in prison and for the last four years has been trying to get permission to return to the United States. In an interview with CNN last month, Potts said he had been told by Cuban authorities that the Castro brothers had gotten out of the business of spreading armed revolution.

Namibia was the chosen refuge of Comverse Technology founder Jacob “Kobi” Alexander when in 2006 he fled charges of fraud and irregularities in stock trading. The 61-year-old businessman settled with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission two years ago for $56 million, according to the Bloomberg news agency, but remains mired in labyrinthine Namibian court proceedings.

Venezuela has set itself up as Washington’s No. 1 enemy in Latin America, protecting the anti-U.S. legacy of late President Hugo Chavez. But the two countries have an extradition treaty, and even if Caracas were to offer Snowden asylum now, any improvement in relations in the years to come could make that shelter a bargaining chip that Venezuelan authorities may have no qualms about cashing in.

Other countries with sufficiently acrimonious relations with the United States – North Korea, Iran, Syria, for example – are unlikely to be attractive to a 29-year-old who leaked state secrets. Nor would the governments want to be seen by their own citizens as condoning Snowden’s renegade behavior.

Analysts and legal experts pondering Snowden’s best prospects for escaping U.S. justice have been pointing out that his last known refuge, Hong Kong, may not be the worst place to dig in. While the former British colony has an extradition agreement with the United States and China would probably cooperate with any U.S. request to deport Snowden, contested extradition proceedings can drag on for years in the territory’s clogged courts, the Associated Press noted in a story from Hong Kong on Monday.

That leaves Iceland as a plausible option for Snowden, and even there his petition for asylum would probably be put to the test laid out in a 1951 United Nations convention. Snowden would have the uphill task of convincing Icelandic courts that he is the victim of persecution for his dramatic protest of government snooping, not the legitimate target of prosecution for leaking classified information.


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A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.