Fugitive leaker Snowden remains out of sight

Amid the thousands of people passing through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, Snowden is — if Russia’s government is to be believed — staying put and out of sight. That makes his situation unusual, but for all its extraordinary elements of intrigue, it’s not unique.

The mystery of his whereabouts only deepened a day after President Vladimir Putin said that Snowden was in the transit area of the airport but not technically in Russia because he had not passed through Russian immigration.

That’s more a diplomatic convention than a legal reality, according to James C. Hathaway, director of the Program on Refugee and Asylum Law at the University of Michigan law school.

“Moscow airport is as much a part of Russia as is the Kremlin,” Hathaway said in an email.

“Many nations pretend that airport transit lounges are not part of their territory, indeed not under their jurisdiction. As a matter of international law, this is completely false.”

But if Putin’s statement is true, it does mean that Snowden has effectively lived a life of limbo since his weekend flight from Hong Kong, especially with his American passport now revoked by U.S. authorities, meaning that there are few places he can go.

On Wednesday inside Moscow’s Sheremetyevo, there were typical scenes of shopping, snoozing travelers and hundreds of tourists sipping coffee, however there was no trace of America’s most famous fugitive.

The former National Security Agency contractor who leaked U.S. surveillance secrets is not the first person to be stranded in the legally ambiguous zone between the arrivals gate and the immigration desks of an international airport. Snowden could end up joining the roster of unwilling airport residents whose ordeals, suspended between states, have stretched on for months or even years.

Airport transit areas provide a limbo zone in which humans can sometimes get lost. The Sheremetyevo airport has seen crowds of refugees from countries including Afghanistan and Somalia living in corridors awaiting refugee status, and Russia has been accused of using the airport as a convenient way of stalling asylum requests.

In 2010 the U.S. State Department cited the case of 16 Somali asylum seekers who “spent several months living in the airport’s transit zone, at times compelled to beg for food from airline passengers.” The State Department report said they were unable to apply for Russian asylum and were forced to turn to the United Nations for help.

Adding to the uncertainty in the Snowden case, Ecuador’s foreign minister Ricardo Patino said it could take months to decide whether to grant asylum to the fugitive, and the Latin American nation would take into consideration its relations with the United States.

Snowden, who is charged with violating American espionage laws, fled Hong Kong over the weekend and flew to Russia. He booked a seat on a Havana-bound flight Monday en route to Venezuela, but didn’t board the plane. His ultimate destination was believed to be Ecuador.

Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa shot back at critics on Wednesday, taking special aim at a Washington Post editorial that described him as “the autocratic leader of tiny, impoverished Ecuador” and accused him of a double standard for considering asylum for Snowden while stifling critics at home.

“The shamelessness of the century: Washington Post accuses Ecuador of double standard,” Correa said on his Twitter page.

As a contractor for the NSA, Snowden gained access to documents that he gave to the Post and the Guardian to expose what he contends are privacy violations by an authoritarian government.

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