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Allow Edward Snowden to return without fear, Council of Europe tells U.S.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), meeting for its summer plenary session in Strasbourg, passed a resolution on Tuesday calling on the U.S. to "allow Mr Edward Snowden to return without fear of criminal prosecution under conditions that would not allow him to raise the public interest defence."

The resolution, "Improving the protection of whistle-blowers," was passed with 88 votes in favour, 7 against and 10 abstentions, and called on Council of Europe (CoE) member and observer states (of which the U.S. is one) to create legal frameworks for whistleblowers to have access to a public interest defense.

Such a legal defense allows defendants to argue that laws were broken for the benefit of the public good. In particular, the resolution highlights the need for a public interest defense for intelligence and national security sectors, where workers are often not given the same protections as those in other sectors.

In his current situation, Edward Snowden could not have a fair trial if he returned to the U.S., the former American intelligence services analyst told an audience at the CoE via video link just after the PACE resolution was adopted. He is believed to be living in Russia while seeking asylum elsewhere.

"The conditions of anyone in my position's return to the U.S., anyone charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, as I have for providing information to the American press, is that they have to waive their right to a fair trial to return," Snowden declared during the event organized by the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) for the PACE session.

Snowden came to international attention in 2013 when he revealed extensive mass surveillance techniques being used by the American National Security Agency (NSA) to gather data on politicians, businesses, and citizens of several countries, including and in the U.S. as well, unbeknownst to even many American political leaders.

U.S. prosecutors have since charged Snowden with violation of the Espionage Act for "unauthorized communication of national defense information...and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person." Under the Espionage Act, individuals charged cannot raise a "public interest" defense.

"There is no public interest defense in the United States, so you have no protection," explained American expert Morton Halperin, a former advisor to the White House and currently a Senior Advisor for the Open Society Foundations, who joined the same event via video link from the US.

Halperin underlined that according to American law, situations like Snowden's are determined purely by questions of authorization - whether a person who shares information has the authority to do so, or whether the recipient of the information is authorized to receive it - and the issue of whether the discloser served the public interest are not under question. This means that a whistleblower might reveal serious criminal activity, but still be prosecuted themselves for the act of disclosure.

"We've had particular cases that have shown people have come forward ... where they have shown concrete evidence of wrong doing, and yet national governments have tried to hold them personally accountable for some sort of technical infraction," Snowden explained, presenting the risks faced by whistleblowers in general.

The PACE resolution, notably, also calls on member states to "grant asylum, as far as possible under national law, to whistle-blowers threatened by retaliation in their home countries, provided their disclosures qualify for protection under the principles advocated by the assembly."

During the debate, some parliamentarians praised Snowden's bravery, with Pieter Omtzigt (Netherlands, European People's Party), the rapporteur for the resolution, calling the American "a great patriot" for having given up "a cushy job to bring us the truth."

Snowden, himself, welcomed the PACE resolution, underlining what it did for all whistleblowers, calling it "a major step forward" for Europe but also internationally.

Other parliamentary members, however, indicated that the resolution wasn't about Edward Snowden, and highlighted the high level of complexity facing governments who want to deal with the issue.

"Edward Snowden has become an international symbol, but just as important are all those ordinary employees who report on illegal activities at their work," underlined Lise Christoffersen (Norway, Socialist group).

"When you are a whistleblower you are objectively a traitor, but you are a traitor out of a sense of duty," declared Luc Recordon (Switzerland, Socialist group).

In a Monday side event of the PACE session, WIN organized presentations by whistleblowers representing the banking sector, health, and food safety. Britain Martin Woods had uncovered money-laundering activities at American bank Wachovia, Swiss Yasmine Motarjemi had discovered food safety problems at Nestle, and French former civil servant Nicole-Marie Meyer revealed financial and other irregularities in the French foreign affairs ministry.

All three shared stories of trying to report problems internally, within their organizations, and being ignored, before turning to external groups, and all three testified to their difficulties in earning a livelihood after becoming whistleblowers. They pleaded with the audience to take action to protect ordinary people in their situations, very few receiving the worldwide attention of Edward Snowden.

"A whistleblower isn't a lawyer or a journalist," Meyer explained, "just a person standing up for the public good."

Rapporteur Omtzigt, on Tuesday, highlighted the immense stress faced by ordinary people who become whistleblowers.

"The suicide rate among whistleblowers is quite a bit higher than normal, I assure you, because of the pressure that is among them," he told the assembly, while thanking them for their support of the resolution.

The PACE General Assembly also passed a resolution during its April plenary session on restricting the use of the massive surveillance techniques that were revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013.

[Source: Xinhua, Strasbourg, 23Jun15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 24Jun15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.