Edward Snowden says he is prepared to be questioned in Germany about the NSA scandal. But would it even be legally possible without granting him asylum - as some German politicians are demanding?
A whistleblower's life in asylum can be full of deprivations. Apart from his family and friends, it's the little things in life that Edward Snowden misses. Like his favorite brand of tortilla chips, which you can't get in Russia. This - according to an article in the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung - is what he told journalist John Goetz, who met Snowden in Russia last Thursday (31.10.2013) along with parliamentarian Hans-Christian Ströbele of the German Green Party.
But aside from his love of all things crunchy, Edward Snowden addressed another topic during the meeting - one which no doubt aroused rather more interest on the part of his German visitors. Snowden said he was willing, in principle, to testify about the NSA spying scandal before a parliamentary investigation committee in Germany. He even put it in writing, in a statement he handed over to Christian Ströbele.
So what a week ago seemed at best a mere theoretical possibility has suddenly taken on concrete shape. But if Snowden were to testify in Germany, he would probably lose the refugee status granted him by the Russian Federation, and would probably have to reapply for asylum should he want to return there. For many German politicians, the conclusion is obvious: Snowden should be granted political asylum in Germany.
Is Snowden a victim of political persecution?
To do that would necessitate circumventing the bilateral extradition agreement between the US and the EU member states. An assessment by the German parliament’s scientific service has concluded that this would theoretically be possible if a person is being persecuted because of an "offence of political nature" - and this could indeed apply to Snowden.
Claudia Roth is the Green Party vice-president of the German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. "We think it would be a good signal if Edward Snowden were granted safe conduct in Germany, if he were received here, if he could be a witness here," she said in an interview with German public radio. And in the current edition of the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, 50 German celebrities have spoken out in favor of Snowden testifying in Germany - from the former general secretary of the Christian Democrats (CDU), Heiner Geissler, to the actor Daniel Brühl.
Bernd Riexinger, chairman of the Left party, also wants Snowden to be granted political asylum in return for his testimony. "I believe Snowden has contributed more to keep us informed than any secret service," he says. If Snowden were Chinese or Russian, Riexinger said on public TV channel ZDF, he "would have been granted political asylum a long time ago."
But Edward Snowden is an American. Receiving him in Germany, and thereby breaking the extradition treaty with the US, would be a diplomatic affront. As expected, German chancellor Angela Merkel has made no statement about the Snowden case. But Michael Grosse-Brömer, parliamentary secretary of Merkel’s party, the CDU, said that, given the existing legal situation, he would prefer to see Snowden testify in Russia rather than grant him asylum.
"He is not being politically persecuted – he is being prosecuted as a criminal. There are no provisions in the German consitution that would entitle him to make such a claim," Grosse-Brömer told ZDF. "That’s why it makes sense to question him in Moscow." A representative of the parliamentary investigation committee could travel to Russia to question Snowden.
On Saturday, the Kremlin announced that Snowden was free to meet anyone he wished in Russia. That also includes being questioned by Germany's Federal Prosecutor General as part of a request for judicial assistance - pending Russian approval, of course. The German Interior Ministry has even suggested to the Reuters news agency that an interrogation by video link would theoretically be possible.
Possible "residence permit"
One way of getting around granting Snowden political refugee status would be to provide him with a temporary residence permit. Paragraph 22 of Germany's Residence Act allows for this "if the Federal Ministry of the Interior or the body designated by it has declared that the foreigner is to be admitted in order to uphold the political interests of the Federal Republic of Germany."
The questioning of Edward Snowden could certainly be said to uphold Germany's political interests. But this too would have a negative effect on relations with the US, especially as in July it sent Germany a request for Snowden's arrest in the event of him setting foot on German soil. That paperwork is, however, still lying unanswered in the German Justice Ministry's in-tray.
Parliamentary vice-president Claudia Roth says it would be perverse to not question Snowden in Germany out of concern for US sensibilities. It is not welcoming Snowden to Germany that should be seen as provocative, she says. Rather: "The monstrous act of provocation is the fact that our chancellor was quite clearly under surveillance by the NSA, that opposition politicians were also quite clearly under systematic surveillance."
Bringing Snowden to Germany would mean walking a political tightrope, but there may be a legal safety net. Were this to go ahead, there would of course be tangible personal benefits for Snowden himself. There are plenty of shops in this country that sell US foodstuffs, so there's a good chance he'll be able to get his hands on his favorite tortilla chips.