Leaders of Venezuela and Nicaragua said Friday they would grant asylum to US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, the first countries to offer shelter to the whistleblower wanted for leaking details about widespread US surveillance programs.
"I have decided to offer humanitarian asylum to Edward Snowden … to protect this young man from the persecution unleashed by the world’s most powerful empire," Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said during an event marking Venezuela's independence day, according to Argentina’s La Nacion news website.
Venezuela’s close ally Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega made a similar offer.
"We have the sovereign right to help a person who felt remorse after finding out how the United States was using technology to spy on the whole world, and especially its European allies," Ortega said, according to The Associated Press.
The gestures came after Latin American leaders expressed outrage following the rerouting of the Bolivian president’s plane when rumors swirled in Europe that he had spirited Snowden away from Russia. Many suspect the US government was behind the rumor.
The former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor is still believed to be holed up in Moscow’s airport, facing charges of Espionage Act crimes and, if caught, possibly decades in prison.
The Snowden saga has already hit China and Russia, and angered US allies in Europe. But Friday's asylum offers put the issue squarely in Latin America, where many distrust Washington and root for whistleblowers who appear to confirm their suspicions of its wrongdoing.
The remarks by Venezuela's leader, the chosen successor of President Hugo Chavez, signal the country's US relations remain very rocky even after the death of the longtime ruler in March.
US lawmakers in recent years have voiced concern about Iran's coziness with countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. If either country welcomes a wanted super-leaker like Snowden it would likely put further strain on Washington's tense relations in the region.
It is unclear how Snowden — whose passport's been revoked — would take them up on their offers.
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