How the USA Captures Whistleblowers and Other Political Enemies

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For the last month, I’ve been riveted by the developments surrounding the case of Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old whistleblower who confirmed that the U.S. National Security Agency is, in fact, spying on almost everyone.

Currently, Snowden appears to be trapped in the transit hall of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. The news coverage of the Snowden affair jarred my memory as I had a transit at Sheremetyevo a few years ago while traveling between Havana, Cuba and Hanoi, Vietnam. When I was at Sheremetyevo, the new terminal in which Snowden is likely holed up had been completed, but not yet opened. My transits were in the older terminal, built during the Brezhnev era. I stayed in the Aeroflot business class lounge for the few hours that I was there on the eastbound part of my journey. On the westbound part, I had an overnight connection, so I got a visa from the Russian Embassy in Vientiane, the capitol of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on my Commonwealth of Dominica passport.

Snowden is trapped for the precise reason that I predicted in an earlier blog entry: the U.S. Department of State has now revoked his passport. Unfortunately for Snowden, he apparently doesn’t have any other citizenship other than from the United States and this is not eligible for a second passport.

Now that Snowden’s passport has been revoked, his travel options have narrowed dramatically. Since he apparently hasn’t gone through Russia’s Passport & Visa Control, he remains in a sort of No Man’s Land that while surrounded by the territory of the Russian Federation, isn’t legally a part of it. As long as he remains there, Russia has no legal authority to detain Snowden for possible extradition or expulsion back to the United States.

In order for Snowden to depart safely from the Sheremetyevo without a second passport, he will need to procure some type of refugee travel document. So-called “refugee passports” originated nearly 100 years ago when World War I ended. They’re also called “1951 Convention travel documents” or “Geneva passports” and are authorized under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. They look like regular passport booklets with two diagonal stripes in the upper left corner on the front cover.

According to the 1951 convention, a refugee is: “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Could Snowden be considered a refugee under the 1951 convention or a 1967 protocol amending it? We’ll see how developments unfold in this saga.

Hopefully, none of you reading this post will ever find yourself in the situation Edward Snowden is now experiencing: traveling internationally on a passport your country has revoked. But if you do, I hope that you take a precaution Snowden never did: to obtain a second passport, “just in case.” After all, the grounds under which your country (and especially the United States) can revoke your passport are surprisingly broad.

I’ve often stated that a second passport can actually save your life. In Snowden’s case, this could literally be true. If he ever returns to the United States, voluntarily or otherwise, he’ll likely face trial for espionage, a crime punishable by death under U.S. law.

Reprinted with permission from The Nestmann Group, Ltd.

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