Category: International News Written by News Desk
Edward Snowden has set out the case for Barack Obama granting him a pardon before the US president leaves office in January, arguing that the disclosure of the scale of surveillance by US and British intelligence agencies was not only morally right but had left citizens better off.
The US whistleblower’s comments, made in an interview with the Guardian, came as supporters, including his US lawyer, stepped up a campaign for a presidential pardon. Snowden is wanted in the US, where he is accused of violating the Espionage Act and faces at least 30 years in jail.
Speaking on Monday via a video link from Moscow, where he is in exile, Snowden said any evaluation of the consequences of his leak of tens of thousands of National Security Agency and GCHQ documents in 2013 would show clearly that people had benefited. “Yes, there are laws on the books that say one thing, but that is perhaps why the pardon power exists – for the exceptions, for the things that may seem unlawful in letters on a page but when we look at them morally, when we look at them ethically, when we look at the results, it seems these were necessary things, these were vital things,” he said.
“I think when people look at the calculations of benefit, it is clear that in the wake of 2013 the laws of our nation changed. The [US] Congress, the courts and the president all changed their policies as a result of these disclosures. At the same time there has never been any public evidence that any individual came to harm as a result.”
Although US presidents have granted some surprising pardons when leaving office, the chances of Obama doing so seem remote, even though before he entered the White House he was a constitutional lawyer who often made the case for privacy and had warned about the dangers of mass surveillance.
Obama’s former attorney general Eric Holder, however, gave an unexpected boost to the campaign for a pardon in May when he said Snowden had performed a public service.
The campaign could receive a further lift from Oliver Stone’s film, Snowden, scheduled for release in the US on Friday. Over the weekend the director said he hoped the film would help shift opinion behind the whistleblower, and added his voice to the plea for a pardon.
Ahead of general release, the film will be shown in 700 cinemas across the US on Wednesday, with plans for Stone and Snowden to join in a discussion afterwards via a video link.
In his wide-ranging interview, Snowden insisted the net public benefit of the NSA leak was clear. “If not for these disclosures, if not for these revelations, we would be worse off,” he said.
In Hong Kong in June 2013, when he had passed his documents to journalists, Snowden displayed an almost unnatural calm, as if resigned to his fate. On Monday he said that at that time he expected a “dark end” in which he was either killed or jailed in the US.
More than three years on, he appears cheerful and relaxed. He has avoided the fate of fellow whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who is in solitary confinement in the US. Snowden is free to communicate with supporters and chats online late into the night.
His 2.3 million followers on Twitter give him a huge platform to express his views. He works on tools to try to help journalists. He is not restricted to Moscow and has travelled around Russia, and his family in the US have been to visit him.
But Snowden still wants to return to the US and seems confident, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that it will happen. “In the fullness of time, I think I will end up back home,” he said.
“Once the officials, who felt like they had to protect the programmes, their positions, their careers, have left government and we start looking at things from a more historical perspective, it will be pretty clear that this war on whistleblowers does not serve the interests of the United States; rather it harms them.”
Snowden attracts lots of conspiracy theories. Early on, he was accused of being a spy for China and then a Russian spy. In August a cryptic tweet followed by an unusual absence prompted speculation that he was dead. He said he had simply gone on holiday.
There had also been rumours that his partner, Lindsay Mills, had left him, which would have been embarrassing as their romance occupies a large part of the Stone film. Snowden said “she is with me and we are very happy”.
His revelations resulted in a global debate and modest legislative changes. More significant, perhaps, is that surveillance and the impact of technological change has seeped into popular culture, in films such as the latest Jason Bourne and television series’, such as the Good Wife.
Snowden also welcomed “a renaissance of scepticism” on the part of at least some journalists when confronted by anonymous briefings by officials not backed by evidence.
He warned three years ago of the danger that one day there might be a president who abused the system. The warning failed to gain much traction, given that Obama’s presidency seemed relatively benign. But it resonates more today, in the wake of Donald Trump’s response to the Russian hacking of the Democratic party: that he wished he had the power to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
If Obama, as seems likely, declines to pardon Snowden, his chances under either Clinton or Trump would seem to be even slimmer. He described the 2016 presidential race as unprecedented “in terms of the sort of authoritarian policies that are being put forward”.
“Unfortunately, many candidates in the political mainstream today, even pundits and commentators who aren’t running for office, believe we have to be able to do anything, no matter what, as long as there is some benefit to be had in doing so. But that is the logic of a police state.”
He is even less impressed by the British prime minister, referring to Theresa May as a “a sort of Darth Vader in the United Kingdom”, whose surveillance bill is “an egregious violation of human rights, that goes far further than any law proposed in the western world”.
Snowden was initially berated by opponents for failing to criticise the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, but he has become increasingly vocal. It is a potentially risky move, given his application for an extension of asylum is up for renewal next year, so why do it?
“Well, it would not be the first time I have taken a risk for something I believe in,” he said. “This is a complex situation. Russia is not my area of focus. It is not my area of expertise. I don’t speak Russian in a fluent manner that I could really participate in and influence policy. But when something happens that I believe is clearly a violation of the right thing, I believe we should stand up and say something about it.
“My priority always has to be my own country rather than Russia. I would like to help reform the human rights situation in Russia but I will never be well placed to do so relative to actual Russian activists themselves.”
Might he end up as part of a US-Russian prisoner exchange, with Putin possibly more amenable to the idea if Trump was in power? “There has always been the possibility that any government could say, ‘Well, it does not really matter whether it is a violation of human rights, it does not really matter whether it is a violation of law, it will be beneficial to use this individual as a bargaining chip’. This is not exclusive to me. This happens to activists around the world every day.”
He said he saw the Stone film as a mechanism for getting people to talk about surveillance, though he felt uncomfortable with other people telling his story.
Snowden has toyed with writing his memoirs but has not made much progress. There are at least three books about him on the way; an extensively researched one by the Washington Post’s Bart Gellman and two others thought to be hostile.
Asked if he was the source for the Panama Papers – the comments by the source sound like Snowden – he laughed. He praised the biggest data leak in history, adding that he would normally be happy to cloak other whistleblowers by neither denying nor confirming he was a source. But he would make an exception in the case of the Panama Papers. “I would not claim any credit for that.”
For someone who has spent his life trying to keep out of the public eye, he has now appeared in a Hollywood movie and an Oscar-winning documentary, and several plays, including Privacy, which just ended a run in New York and in which he has a part alongside Daniel Radcliffe.
“It was an alarming experience for me. I am not an actor. I have been told I am not very good at it. But you know if I can, I can try and maybe it will help, I will give it my best shot.”
For Snowden, his campaign for a pardon, even if forlorn, offers a chance to highlight his plight, and he expressed thanks to all those who were backing it. He also said he hoped that after the fuss of the movie he could finally fade into the background. “I really hope it is over,” he said. “That would be the greatest gift anyone could give me.”
“How can you impose restrictions on people gathering together when you know they’re going to gather together and offer prayers?” he said.
He said the fact separatists had been able to announce a protest during Eid, without a backlash from religious and community leaders, “shows how strong the sentiment is in the valley right now”.
Other than its sustained intensity – stretching 66 days and counting – the summer’s unrest is unusual for its focus on Kashmir’s southern valley, deeper inside Indian territory than the traditional rebel heartland along the northern ceasefire line with Pakistan. Its character is also more virulently pro-militant than in the past.
On Sunday, in the southern district, police investigating reports of anti-India fighters in Karimabad village were pelted with stones by villagers. They responded with teargas and pellet guns until being forced to retreat.
“We have a confirmation about 35 [villagers] injured in the clashes,” Rayees Bhat, the police chief for the district, said. “Some reports say up to 100 have been injured, but we don’t have confirmation on that.”
Similar hostility, alongside regular protests and marches, has turned many villages into no-go zones and blunted counter-insurgency efforts against separatist fighters, whose scattered forces are thought to number fewer than 200.
At least seven militants and one police officer were killed in two separate clashes on Sunday, the Indian army said, with one of the gunfights, around a government secretariat in the Poonch district of Jammu, still raging on Monday.
The trigger for the unrest was the death in July of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the most prominent of a new breed of homegrown, millennial militants, whose brand-building on social media, and demands for a caliphate, owe more to groups such as Islamic State than the masked Kashmiri insurgents of the 1990s.
Wani, thought to be 21, was shot dead by Indian police. The next day his funeral attracted tens of thousands of mourners and ignited demonstrations across the former princedom, which was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947 and is still claimed by both.
In the first two days after Wani’s death, according to police records, at least 26 protesters were killed as mobs attacked police stations and camps.
Kashmir Muslims shout anti-Indian slogans after weeks of violence that have left scores dead and thousands injured
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Kashmir Muslims shout anti-Indian slogans after weeks of violence that have left scores dead and thousands injured. Photograph: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images
Injuries, especially to the eyes, have also mounted in violent demonstrations that pit young rock-throwing protesters against Indian police and paramilitary forces armed with assault rifles and non-lethal riot control weapons.
One of the latest casualties was Farah, a teenager from central Kashmir’s Budgam district, who was rushed to Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital on Saturday morning. Three pieces of metal shrapnel fired from “non-lethal” pellet guns had lodged in the 18-year-old’s chin, neck and the corner of her right eye.
“There was a rally in our village when they [security forces] came and started tear-smoke shelling. We tried to run and she got hit by the pellets,” Farah’s cousin, Bashir Ahmad, told the Guardian, as she was taken to an operating theatre.
Nearby, another young protester – his face, neck, chest and legs pockmarked by pellet wounds – waited his turn. He gave the false name Burhan, after the militant whose death had inspired him to take to the streets.
“He fought for a noble cause,” the 16-year-old, from Pulwama district, said of Wani. “He wanted to establish Allah’s law, the law of Qur’an in this land. The protests should continue till we get freedom, the freedom for the sake of Islam,” he said
He was accompanied by another young man, Jehangir Pandit, who said the peaceful passage of Eid this week depended on the government. “If they allow the prayers to happen then things will be fine, but if they stop people from offering prayers, the situation will become very bad. It will lead to battles,” he said.
In any case, it would be a sombre affair. “No one will celebrate it because so many people have died and so many have been injured,” he said.
The hospital in Srinagar was crowded with volunteers, providing medicine, meals and tea to patients and their friends and families in the halls.
Farooq Ahmad, a trader in his mid-40s, attended to a stall set up by a local business group, dispensing up to 1,000 cups of tea each day for the entire nine weeks of conflict, he said.
He planned to spend this week’s festival at the hospital. “This is going to be a tough Eid,” he added.