Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has told a Russian official that the United States will not seek the death penalty for Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who released classified documents to reporters about U.S. surveillance and who has been holed up at a Moscow airport.
In a bid to prevent Snowden from being granted asylum by Russia, Holder wrote a letter to the Russian justice minister, saying that although Snowden has been charged with theft and espionage, he will not face the death penalty if returned to the United States.
“The charges he faces do not carry that possibility, and the United States would not seek the death penalty even if Mr. Snowden were charged with additional death penalty-eligible crimes,” Holder wrote to Justice Minister Alexander Vladimirovich Konovalov.
The letter was dated Tuesday and released by the Justice Department on Friday.
Holder also told Konovalov that Snowden would not be tortured if he returns to the United States and would be tried in a civilian rather than a military court, with the full protection of U.S. law. Snowden has suggested in news reports that he could be tortured or face the death penalty if returned home.
“Torture is unlawful in the United States,” Holder wrote. “If he returns to the United States, Mr. Snowden would promptly be brought before a civilian court convened under Article III of the United States Constitution and supervised by a United States District Judge. . . . Mr. Snowden would be appointed (or if so chose, could retain) counsel.”
The release of Holder’s letter came on a day when Russian officials seemed both unenthusiastic to have Snowden on their soil and unwilling to extradite him to the United States.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia “never surrendered anyone and we will never do so in the future,” the Interfax news agency reported.
At the same time, he said Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want the Snowden drama to harm U.S.-Russian relations. Putin “has demonstrated strong resolve to prevent this,” Peskov said.
Snowden has been in a transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport since arriving from Hong Kong on June 23. Vladimir Volokh, the head of the public council of the Russian Federal Migration Service, said Friday that he could be stuck there “for up to six months” as officials review his legal situation, Interfax reported.
“The procedures to determine his legal status are underway. We know that he is Edward Snowden only from his words. The passport he had has been canceled,” Volokh said, according to Interfax.
“He is under protection in the transit area for his safety,” Volokh said. “He is an individual being pursued and his life is in danger.”
In his letter, Holder said Snowden is free to travel from Moscow, despite the revocation of his U.S. passport June 22. Snowden is immediately eligible for a “limited validity passport” good for direct return to the United States, Holder said.
“We understand from press reports and prior conversations between our governments that Mr. Snowden believes he is unable to travel out of Russia,” Holder wrote. “That is not accurate; he is able to travel.”
Holder said U.S. officials think “these assurances eliminate these asserted grounds for Mr. Snowden’s claim that he should be treated as a refugee or granted asylum, temporary or otherwise.”
Snowden has previously said that he applied for asylum with countries other than Russia, but his options have been limited because of fears that he could be detained by the United States or its allies on the way to his destination.
On Friday, Snowden’s father, Lon, urged President Obama in a letter to order Holder to drop the charges against his son.
“We also find reprehensible your administration’s Espionage Act prosecution of Edward for disclosures indistinguishable from those which routinely find their way into the public domain via your high level appointees for partisan political advantage,’’ the elder Snowden wrote, along with his attorney, Bruce Fein.
Birnbaum reported from Berlin. Jerry Markon contributed to this report.