Geopolitics

Is Snowden Violating His Russian Asylum Conditions?

July 2013 protests in support of Edward Snowden in Frankfurt, Germany
July 2013 protests in support of Edward Snowden in Frankfurt, Germany
Galina Dudina, Elena Chernenko and Ivan Safronov

MOSCOW — The U.S. government is convinced that Edward Snowden is violating Vladimir Putin’s “ultimatum.” The Russian president had said in July that the National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower could stay in Russia only if he “stopped his work that was meant to cause damage to our American partners.”

In August, Snowden was granted asylum in Russia for one year.

Washington is equally convinced that the Western press, which has continued publishing classified materials from Snowden’s archive, is communicating with Snowden. His willingness to help German security forces investigate the monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone has also provoked anger in Washington. “Snowden’s actions in Moscow obviously damage the national interests of the United States,” one high-level White House source said recently.

The Kremlin does not agree. “These materials published by the German media were not distributed from Russia,” said Putin’s press secretary Dmitrii Peskov.

Snowden himself has said several times that he gave his entire archive to Western journalists while he was in Hong Kong, and that he no longer has access to the documents. “No one will allow him to break the condition of not damaging the United States,” Peskov said. “But he has received temporary asylum in Russia through legal means, and is free to meet with whomever he wants. We can not prevent him from doing so.”

European media recently revealed that the NSA’s surveillance reach included both European citizens and heads of state. Journalists based their revelations on documents provided by Snowden. Among the revelations was that the NSA had spied on Merkel’s private cell phone. And although the White House has assured Merkel that she is no longer being monitored, German security forces have been working to verify those assurances.

Welcome in Germany?

The German parliament hopes that Snowden will be a key witness in the investigation.
The Bundestag has scheduled hearings on NSA actions for Nov. 18, and Green Party MP Hans-Christian Ströbele recently met with Snowden in Moscow. “He expressed a general willingness to help illuminate the situation,” Ströbele told German television after a three-hour conversation with Snowden. According to Ströbele, Snowden “made it clear that he knows a lot.”

German law enforcement is also counting on Snowden’s assistance. “If he is prepared to talk with German officials, we will find a way to make that conversation possible,” said German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich. “Every explanation, any facts or information that we can get, will be useful.” The German Justice Minister likewise voiced support for Snowden’s appearance on the witness stand.

According to reports from German newspaper Die Welt, the Bundestag’s legal department has already prepared a report detailing the grounds for questioning Snowden in Berlin. The document says that the German Ministry of Internal Affairs could protect Snowden from deportation to the U.S. if it is in the best interests of the German government.

But Snowden’s Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena explained that as a temporary refugee Snowden is not allowed to leave Russia. “If they were to offer him asylum, that would be another thing,” Kucherena said. “But refugee status is only valid in the country that granted it, according to both Russian and international law.” Berlin is prepared to send a special delegation to Moscow to take a witness statement from Snowden.

Kucherena is convinced that Snowden isn’t violating the conditions that Putin established for his staying in Russia. “We are talking about material that he gave journalists when he was in Hong Kong,” he said. “He has not given anyone any new documents from here.”

Snowden gave Ströbele a letter to give to German officials. In it, he expresses his willingness to help Germany, which was among the NSA’s targets. “My government continues to treat dissent as defection,” the letter said. “... I look forward to speaking with you in your country when the situation is resolved.”

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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