BOGOTA, Colombia — Edward Snowden was reportedly being hustled Sunday across the Atlantic, perhaps through Cuba, as he tried to make his way to Ecuador where he hoped to fight extradition to the United States on espionage charges.
Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said his country had received Snowden’s asylum request. The anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks said Snowden had left Hong Kong and was bound for Ecuador “via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.”
A U.S. State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said countries in the Western Hemisphere were being advised that Snowden is wanted on felony charges, “and as such should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States.”
If Snowden makes it to Ecuador, there’s little doubt he’ll be granted asylum, said Berta Garcia, a social science professor at Ecuador’s Catholic University in Quito. The country set a precedent last year by granting refuge to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, she said. And President Rafael Correa – a charismatic populist who easily won re-election in February – has often clashed with the United States in the name of Latin American sovereignty.
“When it comes to international issues, Correa has wrapped himself in the flag of being a defender of human rights,” Garcia said. “I think the United States will have to handle this issue delicately so it doesn’t turn into a regional issue.”
Patino, who was traveling in Vietnam, is expected to hold a news conference on the issue Monday.
Ecuador – a nation of 15 million best known for the Galapagos Islands and its banana exports – is cementing its reputation as a haven for whistle-blowers on the run. Assange has been holed up in the nation’s London embassy for more than a year fighting extradition to Sweden on allegations of sex crimes. Assange fears that Sweden might ultimately deport him to the United States where he might be punished for publishing thousands of secret and confidential U.S. State Department cables, but British authorities are refusing to give him safe passage to Ecuador.
“What is being done to Mr. Snowden and to Mr. Julian Assange — for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest — is an assault against the people,” Baltasar Garzon, a former Spanish judge who represents Assange, said in a written statement. WikiLeaks said Snowden had requested its “legal expertise and experience to secure his safety.”
Snowden originally said he would fight extradition from Hong Kong, where he has spent weeks revealing details about U.S. and British surveillance programs. But during a trip last week to London, Patino said Ecuador would consider an asylum plea from him. On Sunday, Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow, and Russian media said he would be travelling through Cuba before entering South America.
Snowden’s arrival in Ecuador could fuel diplomatic tensions.
In 2011, Ecuador expelled U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges after WikiLeaks publicized a cable she had written in 2009 outlining corruption charges against a former police chief. In that cable, she speculated that Correa had appointed the chief because his checkered past made him easy to manipulate. Ambassadors were posted again starting in December 2011, but Correa has maintained his fiery rhetoric.
Over the weekend, he blasted the United States for criticizing a new Ecuadoran media law that many fear will muzzle the press. Among other things, the law makes the publication of private communications – WikiLeaks’ bread and butter – illegal.
Speaking to supporters, Correa said the United States needed to worry about its own human rights record, including the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and spying on its allies and the media.
“Understand that Latin America is dignified and sovereign in the 21st century,” he said. “It’s not anyone’s backyard.
Earlier Sunday, there was speculation that Snowden might seek asylum in Iceland, Cuba or Venezuela. That sparked U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., to say she wouldn’t be surprised if Snowden ended up on the communist island or its mainland ally.
“The cruel irony is that there are no press freedoms in either Cuba or Venezuela, yet Snowden, who supposedly stands for transparency in government, seeks refuge in police states like these two countries,” she said. “Those who misrule over Cuba and Venezuela, Raul Castro and Nicolas Maduro, do not allow independent free press, do not cooperate on terrorism related issues, disregard due process and an independent judicial system.”
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