Whistleblower Edward Snowden faces a tough road ahead after his heady act of telling the world about the U.S. government's secret surveillance program. Snowden is reportedly still in Hong Kong, but where can he go to escape likely U.S. prosecution?
Russian president Vladimir Putin Tuesday offered his support for an asylum request, one of many countries that do not have an extradition treaty with the United States. Russia gave Wikileaks founder Julian Assange his own TV show, but is also pretty tough on its own whistleblowers.
Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who revealed a corruption scheme involving Russian government officials was arrested and later died in jail after being refused medical attention. His body also showed signs of torture.
Snowden told the Guardian newspaper that he would like to go to Iceland because “they stood up for people over Internet freedom.”
In 2011, Iceland kicked out two FBI agents who had come to interview member of the Wikileaks group. This year, Iceland’s Supreme Court ordered a domestic credit card agency to continue processing payments by Wikileaks supporters, one of few nations to do so. Iceland also granted citizenship to chess champion Bobby Fischer, who was wanted by U.S. officials for breaking international sanctions against Yugoslavia by playing a chess match there in 1992.
Iceland does have an extradition treaty with the United States, according to Johannes Tomasson, press secretary for Iceland’s Ministry of the Interior. However to seek refuge, Snowden would have to get to the remote island nation first.
"The person seeking political asylum or for whatever reasons must be present in the country and present the necessary documents," Tomasson said from Reykavik.
Could Snowden just jump over the fence at an Icelandic embassy somewhere?
"You would only get some information and consultation," he said. "But he could not start the real application because the person must be in Iceland."
Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong.The Guardian via Getty Images
The other alternative is to seek a country that does not have extradition agreement with United States. That list includes Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Andorra, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Brunei and 90-some other nations. Cuba, for example, sheltered U.S. resident Robert Vesco, who was wanted on tax fraud charges for 20 years until his death in 1992.
Many less-developed nations in Africa and the former Balkan states are also without U.S. extradition treaties. There are also some relaxed nations on the list, such as Pacific islands of Samoa and Vanuatu, or the lemur-populated Republic of Madagascar.
But when it comes to a high-profile fugitive wanted by the U.S. government, more is at stake that just extradition treaties. There are also political realities, according to Karen Musalo, an expert in international refugee law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.
"How does a country feel about putting itself in a position where it will be perceived to thwart the request of the United States?" Musalo said. The United States can put political and economic pressure on smaller nations to give up the people they want.
It's also hard to predict how an individual nation might act. Iceland's government has changed recently, and has become more conservative. How would these new leaders handle a request from someone as radioactive as Snowden?
"One country might make an (asylum) determination that his case is persecution on behalf of political opinion," Musalo said. "But another might say it might be prosecution for committing a crime."
In that case, Snowden might want to look for a small, out-of-the way nation without a lot to risk from sheltering him from U.S. law enforcement, according to Widney Brown, law and policy director for Amnesty International, USA.
"You probably want to go to a country that will not use him as a pawn in a political game in with the United States," she said.
In the meantime, it's likely that U.S. authorities will continue playing a high-stakes game of "Where's Snowden."