BOGOTA -- U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden is reportedly being hustled across the Atlantic, perhaps through Cuba, as he tries to make his way to Ecuador where he hopes to fight extradition to the United States on espionage charges.
Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño on Sunday said that the country had received his asylum request. And the whistleblower 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 background 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 Snowdon makes it to Ecuador, there’s little doubt he’ll be granted asylum, said Berta García, 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 reelection in February – has often clashed with the United States in the name of Latin American sovereignty.
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“When it comes to international issues, Correa has wrapped himself in the flag of being a defender of human rights,” García said. “I think the United States will have to handle this issue delicately so it doesn’t turn into a regional issue.”
Patiño, who is traveling in Vietnam, is expected to hold a news conference on the issue Monday.
Ecuador – a nation of 15 million better known for the Galapagos Islands and its banana exports – is cementing its reputation as a safe-haven for whistleblowers 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 may 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 Garzón, a former Spanish judge who is the legal director of and represents Assange, said in a 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 U.K. surveillance programs. But during a trip last week to London, Patiño said Ecuador would consider an eventual asylum plea from him. On Sunday, Snowden traveled from Hong Kong to Moscow, and Russian media said he would be travelling through Cuba before entering South America.
The United States has been in touch via diplomatic and law enforcement channels with countries in the Western Hemisphere through which Snowden might transit or that could serve as final destinations. The U.S. is advising these governments 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."
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 eventually restored 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 in Guantanamo detention center, 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-FL, Chairman of the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, to say she wouldn’t be surprised if Snowden found safe-haven on the communist island or it’s 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, Raúl Castro and Nicolás Maduro, do not allow independent free press, do not cooperate on terrorism related issues, disregard due process and an independent judicial system.”
Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong came a day after the United States made a formal request for his extradition. Hong Kong said the request did not “fully comply with legal requirements under Hong Kong law,” the Associated Press reported. The government also said Snowden left “on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel.”
The Cuban government had no comment on Snowden’s movements or reports he might use Havana as a transit point.
Snowden’s departure came as the South China Morning Post released new allegations from the former National Security Agency contractor that U.S. hacking targets in China included the nation’s cellphone companies and two universities hosting extensive Internet traffic hubs.
He told the newspaper that “the NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data.” It added that Snowden said he had documents to support the hacking allegations, but the report did not identify the documents. It said he spoke to the newspaper in a June 12 interview.
With a population of more than 1.3 billion, China has massive cellphone companies. China Mobile is the world’s largest mobile network carrier with 735 million subscribers, followed by China Unicom with 258 million users and China Telecom with 172 million users.
Snowden said Tsinghua University in Beijing and Chinese University in Hong Kong, home of some of the country’s major Internet traffic hubs, were targets of extensive hacking by U.S. spies this year. He said the NSA was focusing on so-called “network backbones” in China, through which enormous amounts of Internet data passes.
(This story contains material from The Associated Press.)