Russian airport limbo ends for Snowden, new life begins

03.08.2013 00:51

After nearly six
weeks in hiding at Moscow's
Sheremetyevo airport,
Edward Snowden walked
calmly out of the transit
area, ducked into a car and
was driven away unnoticed.
It was an anti-climactic end to one chapter
of a saga watched by the world in which the
American, wanted in Washington for leaking
details of secret U.S. surveillance
programmes, stayed out of sight for almost
40 days and nights.
Hardly any pictures of him appeared in that
time. One showed the 30-year-old meeting
human rights activists at the airport, another
showed him about to leave the airport.
But by the time that photograph was shown
on Russian state television on Thursday
evening, Snowden was long gone.
Many questions remain about the former U.S.
spy agency contractor's time in the transit
area, a no-man's-land for those with
connecting flights who normally stay, at
most, a few hours.
But a picture is emerging of a man who had
become physically and mentally exhausted,
increasingly anxious for some certainty about
his future and desperate for something
resembling normality after two months on the
"During his time there it was very difficult,
psychologically difficult, because when
someone's waiting he doesn't understand
what will happen," his Russian lawyer,
Anatoly Kucherena, told Reuters in an
"His first desire was to gulp the fresh
Moscow air."
Snowden was at first incredulous when
Kucherena told him Russia had granted him a
year's temporary asylum, and then delighted.
Kucherena said he left the airport with a
backpack, a string bag and a sense of relief.
"Imagine yourself daily (having to listen to)
'Dear passengers, the flight to New York, the
flight to Washington, the flight from Rome',"
Kucherena said.
"He needs a period of rehabilitation, or
adaptation, because he is very tired and
morally exhausted."
Kucherena, who serves on a board that
advises Russia's FSB security service, a
successor of the KGB, is one of the few
people who have had direct contact with
Snowden since he arrived at Sheremetyevo
from Hong Kong on June 23.
The others include Sarah Harrison, a legal
researcher for the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy
group, and a few airport officials. Kucherena
said American friends, with whom he said
Snowden would now stay, had also visited
him at the airport.
Kucherena is giving little away about how
Snowden managed to avoid the hordes of
reporters who tried for weeks to catch a
glimpse of him, but he said he spent at least
some of the time at a hotel for transit
passengers at Terminal E.
Airport sources said he had slept at least
some of the time in the Capsule Hotel, with
its grey rooms and sparse, basic but clean
interiors. But one added: "He made sure that
none of the ordinary people working there
saw him."
Hotel sources said however Snowden and a
female companion, thought to be Harrison,
had checked out prices soon after his arrival
but then left without checking in.
To relieve Snowden's boredom, Kucherena
brought him Russian literature including
Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 19th-century novel
Crime and Punishment, in which the main
character is racked by guilt over a crime he
has committed - an old woman's murder.
He also brought Snowden changes of clothes,
pizza and a Russian-English dictionary as he
prepared for the next stage of his life,
learning the Russian for "Hi", "Bye-bye" and
"I'll give you a call."
Snowden's trail went cold as soon as he
landed at Sheremetyevo on a flight from
Hong Kong, where he had feared he would be
arrested after lying low there for two weeks.
Snowden did not come through the usual exit
into the transit zone. Other passengers saw
cars waiting on the runway and said he must
have been whisked away by security officers.
"There were a lot of police and black cars
when we were getting off the plane," said
one passenger.
Snowden disappeared into the warren of
corridors, rooms, and security zones that
make up the transit area between the runway
and passport control. He hid so well that the
cat-and-mouse game with reporters turned
to farce.
"Have you found him yet?" a Russian security
officer asked journalists at the airport a few
days into the saga. Then he burst into
mocking laughter.
Snowden came prepared to spend only one
night at the airport but his plans soon started
to unravel as a diplomatic battle broke out
over his request for political asylum in
There are no direct flights from Moscow to
Ecuador so Snowden's next step would have
been to take a flight to Cuba.
Sources at the national carrier, Aeroflot, say
he was booked on flight 105 to Havana on
June 24, the day after his arrival. He and
Harrison checked in over the Internet and
then again over a mobile device in the hours
leading up to take-off.
But 12 minutes after the already-delayed
plane was scheduled to depart, they
cancelled their tickets, the sources said. The
Airbus A330 took off almost 40 minutes later
with a plane full of journalists and Snowden
nowhere to be seen.
After that, carts of food were wheeled in and
out of special lounges at the airport, and
guards blocked a door to a concealed area in
the transit zone. Snowden remained out of
The conditions were a step down from Hong
Kong, where he had stayed at the five-star
Mira hotel as he gave details of the NSA's
surveillance work to journalists.
It was not until the second day after
Snowden's arrival at Sheremetyevo that
President Vladimir Putin confirmed Snowden's
arrival, which was both a propaganda tool
and a headache.
Giving Snowden asylum was certain to anger
the United States. Sending him home would
help warm up relations with President Barack
Obama but open Putin to domestic criticism -
polls showed Russians supported giving
Snowden asylum.
Putin said the case was something he would
have preferred not to have to deal with.
Speculation has been rife that Russian
security services "debriefed" Snowden to find
out more about the operations of the U.S.
National Security Agency (NSA) he had
worked for briefly. Moscow and Kucherena
deny this, and say there was no special deal
to secure Snowden's asylum status.
Snowden found himself trapped as the United
States revoked his passport and put fierce
pressure on other countries not to allow any
plane carrying him to use its airspace.
He may have fully understood the seriousness
of his plight only after four European allies
of the United States on July 2 refused to let
a plane taking Bolivian President Evo Morales
home from Moscow enter their airspace
because they thought Snowden was on board.
Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia offered to
shelter Snowden, but he feared his plane
would be intercepted en route.
Snowden then summoned human rights
activists and lawyers to meet him at
Sheremetyevo on July 12, apparently to
prepare the way for a temporary asylum
request in Russia. People who took part said
Snowden looked pale, thin and nervous.
He managed to retain a dry sense of humour.
The same day, in response to an email from
a Reuters journalist who had spent a lot of
time at the airport, he replied: "I, too, have
been spending a bit of time in the airport."
Kucherena said during the meeting he asked
Snowden why he had not applied for asylum
in Russia. As soon as he took up Snowden's
cause, signs grew that his case would be
Snowden's father, Lonnie, appeared on
Russian television on Wednesday in what may
have been a move to prepare Russians for
Edward Snowden leaving the airport.
"There is little doubt that this was a
dramatic, television preamble to some kind
of event," Anna Kachkayeva, a prominent
media expert, said of the interview. She said
it was intended to "evoke a sense of
sympathy from many people".
Snowden's future in Russia is uncertain. His
document allows him to work and travel and
can be renewed multiple times.
He has received a marriage proposal from
former Russian spy Anna Chapman, albeit
sent online without meeting him, and a job
offer from a Russian social networking site.
Kucherena says he cannot rule out that
Snowden might host a television chat show.
"He needs to work. He is not a rich man and
the money that he had, he has of course
spent on food," he said. "Of course he
understands that he has to work and he has
to keep on living."