Trapped in the zone: Edward Snowden shouldn’t take everything Putin says at face value

Like everything about this amazing case, Edward Snowden’s attempt to claim asylum has become an enormous story in itself.

Reportedly still holed up in the “transit zone” of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, Snowden’s WikiLeaks-assisted efforts to seek a place of political refuge are proving to be as fraught as you might expect in this increasingly strange affair. Snowden appears to have a good de facto case for receiving asylum - as the barrister Colin Yeo argues here - but, as Yeo also says, Snowden’s future place of residence is likely to be determined more by international politics than by the specific terms of the UN Refugee Convention.

Not that this is right. The USA’s diplomatic strong-arming of countries to try to block Snowden’s asylum efforts is completely contrary to international law. Amnesty’s Michael Bochenek calls this behaviour “deplorable” and it certainly looks a lot like international bullying, something the USA already has considerable form over.

Meanwhile it now transpires that Snowden won’t be trying to seek asylum in the place in which he’s actually located - Russia. I haven’t seen any explanation of his reasons for first saying he would seek asylum in Moscow and his subsequent about-turn. Either way, yesterday Russian president Vladimir Putin adopted a tough-sounding line on Snowden, saying he “must stop his work aimed at bringing harm to our American partners, as strange as that sounds coming from my mouth”, while remarking that “Russia never gives anyone up and doesn't plan to give anyone up. And no one has ever given us anyone.”

What’s Mr Putin talking about here? First he seems to be signalling that the Kremlin and the White House have a mutual interest in cracking down on whistle-blowers. And second, he seems to be asserting Russian sovereignty. No, Russia will not just “give up” Snowden because the FBI want him. We are Russia, etc.

Defiant stuff then. Except … it’s not true. Contrary to Putin’s boast, Russia has regularly colluded with other countries in the region - Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to name just six - precisely to force people back to places where they face almost certain persecution. For example, there's the case of Savriddin Dzhurayev. He’s a 27-year-old man from Tajikistan who fled to Russia from his home country in 2006 after being accused of involvement with banned Islamist organisations. The Tajikistani authorities issued an extradition warrant for Dzhurayev, saying he was accused of politically destabilising Tajikistan (though claiming this had occurred when Dzhurayev was all of seven years old). This was good enough for the Russian authorities. These have regularly fast-tracked people back to former Soviet states and the extradition was duly approved by the General Prosecutor’s Office. However, Dzhurayev’s extradition was subsequently blocked by the European Court of Human Rights and he was then given temporary asylum in Russia, apparently becoming safe for the time being. Except, he was then snatched anyway …

On the night of 31 October 2011 Dzhurayev was abducted in Moscow by persons unknown. He was forced onto a plane and taken back to Tajikistan where he says he was tortured by officials at the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. He was then put through an unfair trial and jailed for 26 years. The Russian authorities have denied involvement in his rendition to Tajikistan, but the European Court doesn’t believe them, saying Russia’s actions had been “tainted by manifest arbitrariness and abuse of power”. Dzhurayev’s is far from the only case. A new Amnesty report talks about a “region-wide programme of renditions”, with Russia very much at the heart of it.

No, Russia never gives anyone up. Except when it does.

Meanwhile, neither reporters nor the outside world have seen Snowden since he entered a “closed area” of Sheremetyevo airport’s transit zone more than a week ago. That word zone spooks me every time I hear it, presumably because I’m primed after years of watching the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and in particular his deeply unsettling Stalker, with its otherworldly, deeply mysterious and highly dangerous Zone. In Tarkovsky’s masterpiece you need a special guide (a stalker) to get you safely into and out of the Zone. If I were Edward Snowden I wouldn’t necessarily trust Vladimir Putin to be my guide to the way out of this particular predicament.

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