The United States is telling Russia it will not seek the death penalty or torture American intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, if Moscow expels him to the United States to face espionage charges.
The top U.S. law enforcement official, Attorney General Eric Holder, told his Russian counterpart in a letter this week that claims by the former intelligence contractor that he could be tortured or put to death "are entirely without merit." Holder said the espionage charges Snowden faces do not carry the possibility of the death penalty and that torture is unlawful in the U.S.
In the letter, released Friday, Holder said the 30-year-old Snowden would be promptly brought before a civilian court if he is extradited to the U.S.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused American requests that Snowden be returned to the U.S., and his spokesman reiterated that stance again on Friday. The spokesman said officials from Russia's FSB agency are in discussions about Snowden with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, but gave no other details, other than to say that Snowden would not be handed over to American authorities.
Snowden has been encamped for a month in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, while searching for a country that would grant him asylum so he could avoid returning to the U.S. to stand trial. But his quick path out of the country was blocked after the U.S. revoked his passport.
Snowden has asked Russia for temporary asylum but says he eventually wants to head to Latin America. The leftist governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered him asylum.
News agencies in Russia reported Wednesday that Snowden was about to be handed documents that would have allowed him to leave the airport transit zone and formally enter Russia. But Snowden's Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, said that consideration of his case was taking longer than expected and that the fugitive would continue to live at the airport.
Kucherena said the asylum request has been complicated by Snowden not understanding the Russian legal system.
"The fact that he spent so much time in the transit zone of the airport had to do with him not knowing Russian, our legal system and not understanding what he should do," he said. "He was asking many foreign governments to grant him political asylum, but it didn't work out, because he could apply for asylum only in the country he was in."
Kucherena said that even if Snowden is allowed to leave the airport he is worried about his safety and the American effort to capture him.
"It's an extremely vital question for him, because even I and you understand that it's the issue of his personal safety," he said. "He obviously is worried because the American government has been particularly active lately with regard to making political statements that Russia had to immediately hand him over to American authorities."
Snowden last month leaked secret details of telephone and Internet surveillance programs being conducted by the U.S.'s clandestine National Security Agency. The NSA says it is collecting the data to thwart terrorist attacks.
Snowden's disclosures have sparked a debate in Congress over the extent of the surveillance. But the House of Representatives this week narrowly defeated an attempt to curtail it, with supporters of the spying arguing that the data collection is necessary to protect the country.