By Timothy Heritage and Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden slipped quietly out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Thursday after being granted a year’s asylum in Russia, ending more than five weeks in limbo in the transit area.
Russia’s decision to help the American, and ignore U.S. requests to send him home to face trial for leaking details of government surveillance programs, is sure to anger Washington and increase doubts that a summit between presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin will go ahead in Moscow in September.
After 39 days avoiding hordes of international reporters desperate for a glimpse of him, Snowden managed to give them the slip again, leaving the airport in a car.
“Over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law but in the end the law is winning,” Snowden, whose first leaks were published two months ago, was quoted as saying by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group which has assisted him.
“I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations.”
Grainy images on state television showed the 30-year-old’s document, which is similar to a Russian passport, and revealed that he had been granted asylum for a year from July 31.
A Russian lawyer said he had handed Snowden a document from Russia which enabled him to leave the airport for a safe location which would remain secret, and that he could now work and travel freely in the country of 142 million.
State television also showed a picture of him getting into a grey car at the airport driven by a young man in a baseball cap. Snowden wore a backpack and a blue button-up shirt.
“He is the most wanted man on planet Earth,” Snowden’s lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told Reuters. “He has to think about his personal security. I cannot tell you where he is going.”
“He can live wherever he wants in Russia. It’s his personal choice,” he said.
OTHER OFFERS OF ASYLUM
Snowden, who had his U.S. passport revoked by Washington, fled to Moscow from Hong Kong on June 23 and had stayed at a hotel at the airport, Kucherena said, but was “psychologically exhausted”.
“Imagine yourself daily (having to listen to) ‘Dear passengers, the flight to New York, the flight to Washington, the flight from Rome’,” the lawyer said.
Snowden, whose revelations have fuelled a debate in the United States about civil liberties and national security needs, was accompanied by Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks representative.
“We would like to thank the Russian people and all those others who have helped to protect Mr. Snowden. We have won the battle – now the war,” WikiLeaks said on Twitter.
WikiLeaks issued its statement as the case against Private Bradley Manning continued for releasing classified U.S. data through its website.
Snowden hopes to avoid a similar fate. Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela have offered him refuge, but there are no direct commercial flights to Latin America from Moscow and he was concerned the United States would intercept any flight he took.
He was forced to bide his time in the transit area between the runway and passport control, which Russia considers neutral territory. Kucherena had given Snowden Russian books to help pass the time and says he has started learning Russian in preparation for his stay, which could be extended after a year.
“I am so thankful to the Russian nation and President Vladimir Putin,” the American’s father, Lonnie Snowden, told Russian state television. He is expected to come to Russia to see his son shortly.
It is not clear what Snowden plans to do in Russia, although he has said he would like to travel around the country. VKontakte, Russia’s answer to social networking site Facebook, has already offered him a job.
STRAINS IN TIES
Washington has signaled in the last few weeks that Obama might consider boycotting the planned summit with Putin. It did not immediately comment on Snowden’s change of status, which steps up the level of support he is receiving from Russia.
It is not clear whether Obama might also consider a boycott of a G20 summit in Russia in September or of the Winter Olympics which Russia will host in the city of Sochi next February.
A senior Kremlin official played down concerns.
“Our president has … expressed hope many times that this will not affect the character of our relations,” Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s top foreign policy adviser, told reporters.
But Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Moscow’s decision and said Russia should send Snowden home because his revelations could do great harm to the United States.
“Edward Snowden is a fugitive who belongs in a United States courtroom, not a free man deserving of asylum in Russia,” Menendez said. “Regardless of the fact that Russia is granting asylum for one year, this action is a setback to U.S.-Russia relations.”
Putin wants to improve relations with the United States that are strained by issues from the Syrian conflict to his treatment of opponents and foreign-funded non-governmental organizations, but would have risked looking weak if he had handed him over to the U.S. authorities.
More than half of Russians have a positive opinion of Snowden and 43 percent wanted him to be granted asylum, a poll released by independent research group Levada said this week.
Putin has said Snowden must stop anti-U.S. activities, but it was not clear whether the American had agreed to do so. Snowden has said that he does not regard his activities as hostile to the United States.
There has already been diplomatic fallout from Snowden’s leaks, which included information that the U.S. National Security Agency bugged European Union offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks, even though the EU is an ally.
China, Brazil and France have voiced concern over the spying program and U.S. ties with Latin American states have been clouded.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Alexei Anishchuk, Katya Golubkova and Gleb Stolyarov, editing by Elizabeth Piper and Michael Roddy)