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article imageDespite pressure, no imminent pardon seen for Snowden

By S├ębastien Blanc (AFP)     Sep 16, 2016 in World

Judging by the resoluteness of US officials' tone, the chances President Barack Obama will pardon Edward Snowden appear very slim, and close to none before November's presidential election.

The former National Security Agency contractor, who released thousands of classified documents in 2013 revealing the vast US surveillance put in place after the September 11, 2001 attacks, currently lives in Russia.

Three prominent human rights groups -- Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union -- launched a campaign Wednesday to pressure Obama to pardon the fugitive whistleblower.

Snowden is also the subject of an Oliver Stone movie that hit screens Friday in the United States.

High-profile lawyers and celebrities including the writer Joyce Carol Oates, actors Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon, and musicians Peter Gabriel and Thurston Moore have signed the campaign's petition at pardonsnowden.org, which urges Obama to grant Snowden clemency before leaving office in January.

It's not the first campaign organized in support of the 33-year-old, who is a hero to some and a traitor to others. But it is focusing pressure on Obama with hopes he will feel less constrained at the end of his presidency.

- 'Very serious charges' -

Officials gave no sign they were listening this week, however.

A Congressional report on Thursday criticized Snowden as a "disgruntled employee," not a "principled whistleblower" protected under law.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Snowden would enjoy legal due process at a trial in th...
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Snowden would enjoy legal due process at a trial in the United States, where he faces up to 30 years in prison for espionage and theft of state secrets
Philippe Lopez, AFP/File

"Edward Snowden is no hero -- he's a traitor who willfully betrayed his colleagues and his country," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes said.

Snowden dismissed the report on Twitter.

"Bottom line: after 'two years of investigation,' the American people deserve better," he wrote. "This report diminishes the committee."

The White House already rejected a previous petition to pardon Snowden in July after it had attracted more than 160,000 signatures.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Snowden would enjoy legal due process at a trial in the United States, where he faces up to 30 years in prison for espionage and theft of state secrets.

"His conduct put American lives at risk and it risked American national security," he told reporters. "And that's why the policy of the Obama administration is that Mr Snowden should return to the United States and face the very serious charges that he's facing."

The Constitution gives the president the authority to grant pardons to those convicted of violating federal law, a power Obama has exercised 70 times since early 2009, significantly less than his predecessors.

However, he leads in commuting the sentences of prisoners already serving time, many for non-violent drug offenses.

Although the majority of previous presidential pardons have gone to those convicted in court, some have benefited those only under threat of prosecution -- including former president Richard Nixon.

"There is precedent for a presidential pardon prior to the formal filing of any charges of treason or related criminal offenses," Thomas Lee, who teaches constitutional law at Fordham Law School in New York, told AFP.

In 1868, Lee recalled, President Andrew Johnson issued by proclamation a "full pardon and amnesty" for anyone who had participated in the Confederate side in the American Civil War.

- Trump and Clinton against Snowden -

Snowden fled with classified documents first to Hong Kong, where he hid among Sri Lankan refugees in cramped tenements, then received political asylum in Russia after the United States revoked his passport while he was en route to Ecuador.

Snowden and his supporters argue that although he stole information, the revelations have benefited the public because they led to improved privacy protection laws.

This photo taken on June 18  2013 shows a banner of Edward Snowden who fled with classified NSA docu...
This photo taken on June 18, 2013 shows a banner of Edward Snowden who fled with classified NSA documents to Hong Kong in 2013
Philippe Lopez, AFP/File

"The enormous value of Mr Snowden's revelations is clear," Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth and Amnesty International chief Salil Shetty wrote in The New York Times on Thursday. "What was their harm? Scant evidence has been provided for many officials' ominous statements."

In a videoconference Wednesday, Snowden repeated that he could not receive a fair trial in the United States under the Espionage Act.

"It does not permit a whistleblower defense," he said. "The law does not distinguish between those who give free sensitive information to journalists and spies who sell it to foreign powers."

But a pardon appears especially unlikely in the current context of the presidential campaign.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has called Snowden "a terrible guy," adding, "you know there is still a thing called execution."

His democratic counterpart Hillary Clinton has said Snowden should not be allowed to return to the United States "without facing the music."

A pardon by Obama before the election would most certainly strike his fellow Democrat Clinton a blow by prompting Republican accusations of weakness.

However, presidents typically issue many of their pardons among their last acts in office.

Snowden supporters argue that a pardon would provide Obama an excellent way to acknowledge the problems of America's sprawling intelligence operations as well as Snowden's role defending American democratic rights.

Others warn against an action they believe would give the wrong signal to the thousands of Americans with access to state secrets.

Whatever happens, Snowden may find himself under mounting pressure again, his welcome in Russia worn out when his residency permit expires next year -- especially since he recently stepped up his criticism of the Kremlin's authoritarian measures.

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