MOSCOW (CNN) — American intelligence leaker Edward Snowden met with human rights activists and lawyers Friday in a transit zone of a Russian airport, in his first public appearance since he left Hong Kong last month.
He has asked rights groups to lobby the Russian government to grant him temporary asylum, Russian Human Rights Watch representative Tanya Lokshina said. Snowden also said he wants to move to Latin America once he is able to do so, she said.
A photograph provided by a Russian Human Rights Watch staffer at the meeting shows him sitting behind a desk, looking much as he did when last photographed.
The former National Security Agency contractor is believed to have been holed up in a transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport since leaving Hong Kong for Russia on June 23.
The meeting with Snowden began at around 5 p.m. local time (9 a.m. ET).
A CNN team at the airport saw about half a dozen people — including Russia’s human rights ombudsman and representatives of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Russian human rights groups — enter a door marked “Private” in Terminal E. Police and security officers then kept the media at a distance.
Sergei Nikitin, head of Amnesty International’s Moscow office, who was at the meeting, said he was pleased to voice the organization’s support for Snowden in person.
“We will continue to pressure governments to ensure his rights are respected — this includes the unassailable right to claim asylum wherever he may choose,” he said in a statement.
“What he has disclosed is patently in the public interest and as a whistleblower his actions were justified.”
Snowden exposed unlawful sweeping surveillance programs, and states that try to prevent him from revealing such unlawful behavior “are flouting international law,” Nikitin said.
“Instead of addressing or even owning up to these blatant breaches, the U.S. government is more intent on persecuting him. Attempts to pressure governments to block his efforts to seek asylum are deplorable,” he said.
Russian asylum conditions?
WikiLeaks said in a post on Twitter that it would release Snowden’s statement to human rights groups later Friday.
The group, which facilitates the anonymous leaking of secret information through its website, has been aiding Snowden in his bids for asylum.
Snowden’s desire to be granted temporary asylum in Russia may represent something of a turnaround.
He last week reportedly withdrew his asylum request with Russian authorities after President Vladimir Putin said he would have to “stop his work aimed at harming our American partners” if he wanted to stay in the country.
“Snowden did voice a request to remain in Russia,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on July 2, according to the Russian news agency Ria Novosti.
“Then, yesterday, hearing President Putin outline Russia’s position regarding the conditions under which he could do this, he withdrew his request for permission to stay in Russia.”
It’s not clear if a request for temporary asylum would entail different conditions.
Snowden has been technically a free man while in Moscow but has been unable to travel after U.S. authorities revoked his passport when he was charged with espionage.
U.S. accused of ‘unlawful campaign’
A letter purportedly e-mailed by Snowden that invited human rights groups and others to the meeting blasted the United States for “threatening behavior” and carrying out illegal actions against him.
In the letter, posted on Lokshina’s Facebook page, the writer praises the “brave countries” that have offered him support, in the face of what he describes as “an unlawful campaign by officials in the U.S. Government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum.”
He also accuses the United States of “threatening behavior” on an unprecedented scale, citing the temporary grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane last week. The jet, which had left Moscow, was forced to land in Austria after other European countries allegedly closed their airspace amid suspicions that Snowden was aboard.
“Never before in history have states conspired to force to the ground a sovereign President’s plane to effect a search for a political refugee,” the letter says.
The writer invited those addressed to join him at Sheremetyevo airport “for a brief statement and discussion regarding the next steps forward in my situation.”
They were instructed to gather in the arrival hall at Terminal F, where an airport staff member would meet them holding a sign labeled “G9.” They should bring the invitation and identification documents “as security will likely be tight at this meeting,” the letter said.
In her Facebook post, Lokshina, the Russian Human Rights Watch staffer, said she received the e-mailed invitation close to 5 p.m. Thursday and acknowledged that she did not know if it was real.
A large group of Russian and international journalists gathered at the airport in anticipation of the meeting.
Latin American asylum offers
Since his arrival in Moscow, Snowden — who faces espionage charges in the United States — has requested asylum in dozens of countries, sparking a surge in speculation about his next steps.
The presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia have said their countries would give him asylum, and Nicaragua’s president said he would offer it “if circumstances permit.”
Snowden has admitted releasing classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs to the media and argues that he did so to expose serious violations of the U.S. Constitution.
He is slammed as a traitor by critics and hailed as a hero by his supporters.
WikiLeaks said in a Twitter post Wednesday that Snowden’s “flight of liberty” campaign was starting, promising further details.
But details about where Snowden is going — and how he’ll get there — have remained hard to come by.
U.S. officials told Chinese officials in Washington this week that they’re disappointed with the way China and Hong Kong handled the Snowden case, saying their actions undermined trust. China said that Hong Kong authorities acted in accordance with the law.
CNN’s Alla Eshchenko and Phil Black reported from Moscow and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN’s Marilia Brocchetto and Alexander Felton contributed to this report.