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NSA leaker Edward Snowden attempts to navigate legal labyrinth

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LONDON -- NSA leaker Edward Snowden faces a legal labyrinth as he struggles to find a country willing to offer asylum.

After apparently spending more than a week in the transit area of a Moscow airport, Snowden is seeking to prove that he deserves protection on the grounds that revealing state secrets benefited the public good.

Anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said Monday that Snowden had sought asylum from 21 countries. However, at least two countries have rejected his application and several others said the former contractor was not eligible unless he was at their border or on their soil.

With no uniform application process, Snowden will need to navigate each country's unique system.

“He might be able to present a whistleblower defense by showing that the documents he revealed benefited the public’s interest more than the state,” Amnesty International’s Michael Bochenek said.

According to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, refugee status can only be granted if an applicant can successfully argue that they face persecution due to one of the following reasons: race, religion, nationality, membership to a social group, or political opinion.

However, countries may reject refugee status if there is “serious reason to suspect that [he has] committed a crime against peace, a war crime, a crime against humanity, or a serious non-political crime outside of [his] country of origin.”

There are signs that Russia, at least, is growing impatient with him. The deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Thursday that Snowden should find another country for refuge.

“He needs to choose a place to go,” Ryabkov told Reuters. “As of this moment, we do not have a formal application from Mr. Snowden asking for asylum in the Russian Federation.”

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Snowden has been charged with espionage by the U.S. and his passport has been revoked. Snowden claims he has effectively been made a "stateless person."

“There are exceptions to the '51 convention” and how states “implement that instrument is down to each individual state,” U.K.-based immigration lawyer Sally McEwen said.

"Political asylum" or "humanitarian protection" may provide an escape route for Snowden. Political asylum, a loosely defined term, allows people not meeting refugee requirements and who face persecution for political opinion to temporarily live in the country. Countries with a humanitarian interest in offering a person asylum may also grant "humanitarian protection" to temporarily protect non-refugees who face serious risks to life in their country.

If any of Snowden’s eight asylum requests in the European Union were accepted, all of the others would become invalid.

In cases where statelessness has been verified, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees can assist people by providing “life-saving emergency assistance, … refugee registration, assistance and advice on asylum applications, education and counseling.”

If a country agreed to consider his application, Snowden would likely receive housing and food while undergoing an interview process. If successful, he would receive refugee or subsidiary protection status and be eligible for benefits such as a residence permit, access to the labor market and healthcare.

If his application is rejected at the first instance, most countries offer the opportunity to appeal the refusal in court. However, if it is rejected twice, Snowden would likely be ordered to return to the U.S.

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