Days after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange revealed that the antisecrecy organization is helping to broker NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden's asylum in Iceland, an Icelandic businessman linked to the group, Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson, said that Snowden could be in Iceland as early as Friday. On Thursday, Sigurvinsson told Reuters that "a private jet is in place in China and we could fly Snowden over tomorrow if we get positive reaction from the interior ministry [in Iceland]." Under Iceland's asylum law, Snowden must go to Iceland to apply for asylum.
Ever since Snowden first said that Iceland was the country that he would most likely seek asylum in, saying that the country has stood up for internet freedom, there has been mounting speculation as to whether, or when, he might do so. Despite the fact that Snowden himself has not explicitly said that he plans to seek asylum in Iceland, indeed he said that he plans to stay in Hong Kong as long as possible, every passing day seems to bring fresh evidence that he plans to head to Iceland.
In an interview last week, Snowden told reporters that although he has "had many opportunities to flee Hong Kong," his "intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate." And then in a question and answer session with readers on the Guardian website on Monday, he said that he decided not to travel to Iceland initially because he feared that the country "could be pushed harder, quicker" by the U.S. government "before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known."
Earlier this week, however, WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said that he had been approached by an intermediary to seek asylum in Iceland on behalf of Snowden. According to the New York Times, a spokesperson for Iceland’s embassy in Washington has confirmed that the government has been "approached by advocates for Mr. Snowden but would not comment further." Hrafnsson said he talked to two offices, the interior ministry and the prime minister's office, and that they both "pointed to the legal code and the understanding, for example, that the asylum seeker must be in the jurisdiction before he can apply for asylum." Despite this noncommittal informal response, Hrafnsson argued that it is "a matter not just for the government in Iceland but also the Icelandic parliament and an important issue to be debated among the general public."
According to the website for Iceland's Directorate of Immigration, applications for asylum must first be lodged with the police, and then after they have finished their inquiry the case will be sent to the Directorate. The Directorate then "carries out a detailed examination of the situation in the applicant’s country of origin and interviews the applicant so he can explain his reasons for applying for asylum." Statistics on its website show that between 1996 and 2009, asylum was only granted in 13 cases, despite hundreds of applications. Although the time taken to process an asylum application varies, most cases are decided within six months.
Iceland has an extradition treaty with the U.S., but it has never extradited a U.S. citizen before. Despite this, Sigurvinsson said that they are also seeking Icelandic citizenship for Snowden. Furthermore, he has said that "confirmation of asylum and that he will not be extradited to the U.S" is needed before Snowden would be put on a plane to Iceland. The Directorate's website clearly states, however, that it "cannot process application [sic] submitted from a person that is not currently present in Iceland."
Yet under Icelandic law, the parliament can grant citizenship to a foreigner, as it did for U.S. chess player Bobby Fischer, without them having to have previously resided there. Lawyer Katrin Oddsdottir said that "he (Snowden) could just send his application for citizenship in the post. Immigration would receive the application and it would be sent to parliament, which would vote on his application."
It seems increasingly likely that Snowden will apply for asylum in Iceland, but the dilemma is that while his advocates say they need the Icelandic government to agree to grant him asylum before he flies there, the government seems unlikely to do that at this stage given the existing law. So Snowden could wait stay in Hong Kong and try to lobby the Icelandic government to bend their asylum rules for him, or he could take a chance and go to Iceland to apply for asylum with no guarantees that he will be successful. Given that there are no moves by authorities in Hong Kong to force Snowden to leave, however, applying for Icelandic citizenship from Hong Kong may be his best option at the moment.