Edward Snowden is trying to escape the long arm of U.S. law by flying in and out of countries that clearly don't mind annoying us, and just as clearly are not the exemplars of democracy, transparency and civil liberties he wishes his own country to be.
Snowden's itinerary appeared to be evolving throughout much of Sunday. He left Hong Kong, landed in Russia and was reportedly bound for Cuba and then Venezuela. Later, the foreign minister of Ecuador tweeted that his country had received an asylum request from Snowden.
So say you're a citizen of Hong Kong, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela or Ecuador, and you want to protest against your government, maybe even leak some big secrets. What kind of conditions and treatment might you expect? Nothing close to Snowden's standard for his own country, that's for sure. Here's what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch conclude in their 2013 world reports:
HONG KONG: The island does not have universal suffrage, police use "overly restrictive methods" in controlling assembly, and the government is not investigating claims that China is monitoring and intimidating Beijing critics based in Hong Kong, says Human Rights Watch. The group says that in a first, two people from mainland China were sentenced to "reeducation through labor" after participating in the annual July 1 pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong.
RUSSIA: According to Amnesty International, the definitions of treason and espionage in Russia were broadened to include sharing information with "or providing miscellaneous assistance" to foreign states and organizations whose activities are "directed against security of the Russian Federation." Human Rights Watch said the expanded definition of treason "could lead to criminal action against those who conduct international advocacy on human rights issues."
Also relevant to the Snowden saga: "Trials did not meet international standards of fairness, and the number of apparently politically motivated decisions grew." And "allegations of torture and other ill-treatment remained widely reported."
As for the overall atmosphere, there was "an unprecedented crackdown against civic activism" in Russia last year, including new laws that "restrict nongovernmental organizations and freedoms of assembly and expression." Libel was re-criminalized several months after it was decriminalized. Amnesty International said that human-rights defenders, journalists and lawyers faced harassment, and investigations into violence against them were "ineffective."
CUBA: Human Rights Watch calls Cuba "the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent" and says it does so using "short-term detentions, beatings, public acts of repudiation, travel restrictions, and forced exile. "The government continues to sentence dissidents to one to four-year prison terms in closed, summary trials, and holds others for extended periods without charge," the group says.
Amnesty International noted that Antonio Michel Lima Cruz, released in October after a two-year sentence, had been convicted of "insulting symbols of the homeland" and "public disorder" for singing anti-government songs. An opposition blogger was blocked from leaving the country for a conference. In addition, " access to information on the Internet remained challenging due to technical limitations and restrictions on content."
VENEZUELA: The power amassed by the government under the late president Hugo Chavez has enabled it to "intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticize the president or thwart his political agenda," writes Human Rights Watch. Reprisals against government critics have unnerved judges, journalists and human rights defenders. Chavez adopted laws that "dramatically reduce the public's right to obtain information held by the government." In addition, he packed the Supreme Court, which "has largely abdicated its role as a check on executive power." Voters narrowly chose a hand-picked Chavez ally to succeed Chavez in a disputed April election.
ECUADOR: This is the country that gave asylum last summer to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks. He is now advising Snowden from inside the embassy of Ecuador in London, where he has been for a year.
Human Rights Watch in its latest annual report notes that journalists and media figures who criticize the government are subjected to "public denunciation and retaliatory litigation." In addition, it says, "Corruption, inefficiency, and political influence have plagued Ecuador's judiciary for years."
The group cites a "terrorism and sabotage" section of the criminal code that it says authorities are using against people protesting about issues like the environment. There's also a 2011 decree from President Rafael Correa allowing the government to monitor the activities of all international NGOs with offices in Ecuador, and rescind their authorizations to operate if, among other things, they resort to "political interference" or "attack public security and peace." And just last week, Human Rights Watch scored Ecuador for a new law it termed an "assault on free speech."
Like the other nations on Snowden's sanctuary search, this does not seem like his type of place.
The two groups did not spare America, which came in for criticism over the death penalty, its incarceration rate, and counter-terrorism policies that include lethal force, military commissions, and indefinite detentions at Guantanamo. However, Human Rights Watch also said that "The United States has a vibrant civil society and media that enjoy strong constitutional protections." In other words, the place Snowden is fleeing, though imperfect, likely comes closest to his ideal.