Category: US constitution and civil liberties

Reports this week claimed Snowden had applied for asylum in Russia because he feared torture if he was returned to US

The US has told the Russian government that it will not seek the death penalty for Edward Snowden should he be extradited, in an attempt to prevent Moscow from granting asylum to the former National Security Agency contractor.

In a letter sent this week, US attorney general Eric Holder told his Russian counterpart that the charges faced by Snowden do not carry the death penalty. Holder added that the US “would not seek the death penalty even if Mr Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes”.

Holder said he had sent the letter, addressed to Alexander Vladimirovich, Russia’s minister of justice, in response to reports that Snowden had applied for temporary asylum in Russia “on the grounds that if he were returned to the United States, he would be tortured and would face the death penalty”.

“These claims are entirely without merit,” Holder said. In addition to his assurance that Snowden would not face capital punishment, the attorney general wrote: “Torture is unlawful in the United States.”

In the letter, released by the US Department of Justice on Friday, Holder added: “We believe that 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.”

The US has been seeking Snowden’s extradition to face felony charges for leaking details of NSA surveillance programmes. There were authoritative reports on Wednesday that authorities in Moscow had granted Snowden permission to stay in Russia temporarily, but when Snowden’s lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, arrived to meet his client at Sheremetyevo airport, he said the papers were not yet ready.

Kucherena, who has close links to the Kremlin, said Snowden would stay in the airport’s transit zone, where he has been in limbo since arriving from Hong Kong on 23 June, for the near future.

The letter from Holder, and the apparent glitch in Snowden’s asylum application, suggest that Snowden’s fate is far from secure.

But a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin insisted Russia has not budged from its refusal to extradite Snowden. Asked by a reporter on Friday whether the government’s position had changed, Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that “Russia has never extradited anyone and never will.” Putin has previously insisted Russia will not extradite Snowden to the US. There is no US-Russia extradition treaty.

Putin’s statement still leaves the Russian authorities room for manoeuvre, however, as Snowden is not technically on Russian soil.

Peskov said that Putin is not involved in reviewing Snowden’s application or involved in discussions about the whistleblower’s future with the US, though he said the Russian security service, the FSB, had been in touch with the FBI.

Speaking on Wednesday, Snowden’s lawyer said he was hoped to settle in Russia. “[Snowden] wants to find work in Russia, travel and somehow create a life for himself,” Kucherena told the television station Rossiya 24. He said Snowden had already begun learning Russian.

There is support among some Russian politicians for Snowden to be allowed to stay in the country. The speaker of the Russian parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, has said Snowden should be granted asylum to protect him from the death penalty.

The letter from Holder was designed to allay those fears and negate the grounds for which Snowden as allegedly applied for asylum in Russia. The attorney general said that if Snowden returned to the US he would “promptly be brought before a civilian court” and would receive “all the protections that United States law provides”.

“Any questioning of Mr Snowden could be conducted only with his consent: his participation would be entirely voluntary, and his legal counsel would be present should he wish it,” Holder said.

He added that despite Snowden’s passport being revoked he “remains a US citizen” and said the US would facilitate a direct return to the country.

Germany’s president, who helped expose the workings of East Germany’s Stasi secret police, waded into the row on Friday. President Joachim Gauck, whose role is largely symbolic, said whistleblowers such as Snowden deserved respect for defending freedom.

“The fear that our telephones or mails are recorded and stored by foreign intelligence services is a constraint on the feeling of freedom and then the danger grows that freedom itself is damaged,” Gauck said.

Hewlett Packard CEO who supported California’s Proposition 8 when running for governor switches to back same-sex unions

The Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, who supported a California law that barred same-sex unions when she ran for governor in the state, explained on Tuesday that she had changed her mind after being persuaded that gay marriage would strengthen society rather than weaken it.

Whitman is among scores of high-profile Republicans, including top advisors to George W Bush, former governors and members of Congress, who have signed a legal brief which is to be filed this week to the supreme court, in support of a lawsuit seeking to strike down Proposition 8, the controversial Californian ballot initiative on same sex marriage.

Whitman said her decision to switch her stance on the issue came about “after careful review and reflection” in the three years since she ran for governor. “Like several others who have either sought or held public office, including president Obama, I have changed my mind on this issue,” Whitman said.

In a blogpost published on Tuesday, she quoted David Cameron, the British prime minister, as among those who helped her to alter her thinking on the issue. She wrote: “In reviewing the amicus brief before deciding to put my signature on it, one passage struck an immediate chord with me. In explaining his own support for same-sex marriage, British prime minister David Cameron once said: ‘Society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.'”

Whitman said that the amicus, or “friend of the court”, brief argues that the “oft-cited claims” that marriage between same-sex couples will hurt traditional marriage and be detrimental to children have been “rejected by social science”. It argues that same-sex marriage promotes family values by allowing children to grow up in stable two-parent homes and thus advances conservative values of limited government and individual freedom.

The American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), the sponsor of the federal constitutional challenge to Proposition 8, said it had worked hard to “strip the partisan veil” from marriage equality. It assembled a bipartisan legal team, led by Theodore B Olson, who was US solicitor general under George W Bush, to build up a case to demonstrate that Proposition 8 violates the US constitution by denying millions of people their fundamental right to marry and their right to equal protection of the laws.

Adam Umhoefer, the AFER’s executive director, said: “The support for marriage equality demonstrated by this amicus brief represents a microcosm of what we see happening all across the country.

“Americans are united behind the concepts of freedom, dignity and strong families. The conservative movement toward the freedom to marry is what we like to call the ‘Ted Olson effect’. We value the support of our conservative colleagues and welcome their voices to the growing majority of Americans who stand for marriage equality.”

Legal analysts told the New York Times, which first reported news of the Republican-supported legal brief, that the document had the power to affect conservative judges, as much for the legal arguments within it. The signers include a list of Republican officials and influential thinkers, many of whom are not normally associated with gay rights and some of whom, like Whitman and Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who opposed gay marriage during his 2012 presidential election campaign, have altered their thinking.

Among the names are representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Florida, and Richard Hanna of New York. Stephen Hadley, a Bush national security adviser, James B Comey, a top Bush Justice Department official, and David A Stickman, president Ronald Reagan’s first budget director, also signed.

Deborah Pryce, a former member of the House Republican leadership from Ohio, now retired, said on Monday: “Like a lot of my country, my views have evolved on this from the first day I set foot in Congress. I just think its the just the right thing and I think it’s on solid legal footing too.”

Huntsman announced his change of heart in an article for The American Conservative entitled Marriage Equality is a Conservative Cause.

Ken Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who came out as gay a few years ago, is on the board of AFER and was a key figure in gathering signatures. He told the New York Times: “We are trying to say to the court that we are judicial and political conservatives and it is consistent with out values and philosophy for you to overturn Proposition 8.”

The supreme court will hear oral argument in Perry vs Hollingsworth on 26 March.

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