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3 Things To Know About Edward Snowden's Passenger Purgatory

Edward Snowden's home, for now: Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.
Kirill Kudryavtsev
AFP/Getty Images
Edward Snowden's home, for now: Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.

"NSA leaker" Edward Snowden is reportedly still in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, where he arrived June 23 on a flight from Hong Kong.

We say reportedly because there hasn't been much official word about his whereabouts since Tuesday, when Russian President Vladimir Putin said Snowden was in the airport's transit zone, hadn't really crossed into Russian territory and was free to leave if he could get a visa from another nation.

While everyone waits to see what happens next — asylum in Ecuador or perhaps Iceland, extradition to the U.S., or a mysterious disappearance? — here are three things we find interesting about the now-30-year-old Snowden's legal limbo:

-- He'd Have To Stay There Until Mid-2031 To Claim The Title. There's no official record-book for this feat, but it would appear that the person who has spent the longest time stuck in an international airport's transit zone is Mehran Karimi Nasseri.

He's the Iranian man who had his passport and other papers stolen while on his way to London, and then ended up stranded in Terminal 1 of Paris' Charles De Gaulle from August 1988 to July 2006, when an illness convinced French authorities to allow him to leave.

As Historic Wings magazine tells its readers:

"Mehran was essentially living the life of a homeless man on the streets — except that his street was the airport. He looked and lived like the homeless, dragging his things around with him. He had even made claim to a certain red chair — his spot in the airport. ... He didn't work and he got by from day to day. The highpoint of this period was that in 2003, Steven Spielberg purchased the rights to his story — reportedly for $250,000, plus some rights to a percentage of ongoing profits. Mehran's salvaged luggage soon carried signs advertising the 2004 movie, The Terminal, which was loosely based on his life at Terminal 1. Even then, he lived as before — in a fragile psychological state, depending on found free meal vouchers and passing his days reading every book in the bookstore."

Mehran's last known address was a homeless shelter in Paris.

-- Transit Zones Really Do Put You In Something Of A Legal Limbo. "Airport transit zones are weird places," writes The Washington Post's Caitlin Dewey. "That space technically falls under no specific jurisdiction, a legal convention evolved to make travel and passport control more convenient. But it also doubles, conveniently, as an excuse for non-intervention in highly politicized or troublesome cases, when acting would provoke some kind of diplomatic snafu."

Russian authorities have let travelers languish in limbo at Sheremetyevo Airport before. "For years the transit lounge at Terminal F was also home to succeeding generations of refugees fleeing conflicts in Somalia and Afghanistan," writes Christian Caryl at the website of Foreign Policy magazine. "Because Russia hadn't established a procedure for recognizing asylum applications, many of those refugees — who, like Snowden, didn't have the proper documentation to enter the country — preferred staying in the airport to returning to their countries of origin. You'd see them sleeping on pieces of cardboard in secluded corners on that second floor, or washing up in the bathrooms."

-- But If Russian Authorities Wanted To Intervene, Their Laws Say They Could. It's right there on the website of Russia's U.S. embassy:


"Transit visa is required if the period of stay in Russia exceeds 24 hours or a traveler needs to change the airport.

"To apply for a transit visa, an applicant should submit to the Consular Division a completed visa application form, national passport, one standard picture, Money Order (see points 1-4 of General Information), as well as:

"-- Visa of the destination country;
"-- Tickets for the whole itinerary."

But, as NPR's Michele Kelemen said on Morning Edition:

"It's really PR heaven for Putin. The U.S. often accuses Russia, as it does China, of cybercrimes. So here's a guy who's been leaking documents about massive U.S. government surveillance programs. So this really offers Russia a chance to point out what it sees as American double standards."

Related: Vice President Biden asks Ecuador not to give Snowden asylum. (Reuters)

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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