Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, has now been holed up in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for twenty-six days, living in legal limbo with major international political implications. (What’s airport living like? Like most international terminals outside the US, Moscow’s airport at least has free wifi.)
He’s been charged with theft of government property and espionage for leaking a trove of documents about top-secret surveillance programs. Federal prosecutors have filed a criminal complaint against Snowden, who could face life in prison. (The Obama Administration has been more aggressive in prosecuting alleged spies than any administration in US history, bringing six of the nine espionage cases ever filed under the 1917 Espionage Act. Snowden would be number seven.)
Why can’t he be extradited to the United States to face criminal charges?
Because legally he’s nowhere.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Snowden is staying in the transit lounge of the airport where he doesn’t need a visa. Therefore, he has not officially crossed into Russia. This is like saying that Guantanamo Bay is not in Cuba. Geographically, silly; legally, true.
“He has a right to buy a ticket and fly where he wants,” Putin has said. “He is a free man.” Yet his passport is now invalid, so he cannot leave.
Snowden has applied for temporary asylum in Russia. That application is pending.
Because the United States and Russia have no extradition treaty.
The US currently has bilateral extradition treaties with 109 countries, listed here. Russia, curiously, is not on the list. This means that Russia is under no legal obligation to return to the US accused criminals who flee there, and we are similarly permitted to harbor their fugitives.
If Snowden boards a plane to go to say, Cuba or Venezuela, each of which has expressed interest in harboring him, he would have to avoid flying over a country with which the US has an extradition treaty. If he did fly over a friendly country, his plane could be forced to land, and Snowden could be apprehended to face charges in the US.
Because Russia simply does not want to send him back to the US.
Though we have no extradition treaty with Russia, Russia could nonetheless voluntarily return Snowden to the US if it chose to. Secretary of State John Kerry has argued that U.S. authorities have transferred seven people in the past two years to honor Russian requests, and that Snowden should be turned over out of “respect for rule of law.”
So far, Russia is unmoved.
The opinions expressed here represent my own and not necessarily those of Avvo.com.