Friday, July 12 2013, 04:15 PM MDT
Snowden Emerges for Meeting in Moscow Airport
By Alla Eshchenko and Laura Smith-Spark
MOSCOW (CNN) American intelligence leaker Edward Snowden met with human rights activists and lawyers Friday in a transit zone of a Russian airport, in his first public appearance since he left Hong Kong last month.
He has asked the rights groups to lobby the Russian government to grant him temporary asylum, Russian Human Rights Watch representative Tanya Lokshina said.
A photograph provided by a Russian Human Rights Watch staffer at the meeting shows him sitting behind a desk, looking much as he did when last photographed.
The former National Security Agency contractor is believed to have been holed up in a transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport since leaving Hong Kong for Russia on June 23.
The meeting with Snowden began at around 5 p.m. local time (9 a.m. ET).
A CNN team at the airport saw about half a dozen people -- including Russia's human rights ombudsman and representatives of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Russian human rights groups -- enter a door marked "Private" in Terminal E.
Police and security officers are now guarding the door and keeping the media at a distance.
U.S. accused of 'unlawful campaign'
A letter purportedly e-mailed by Snowden inviting human rights groups and others to the meeting blasted the United States for "threatening behavior" and carrying out illegal actions against him.
Snowden's comments were made in an invitation purportedly e-mailed by him to human rights groups and other "respected individuals," and posted on Lokshina's Facebook page.
In the letter, the writer praises the "brave countries" that have offered him support, in the face of what he describes as "an unlawful campaign by officials in the U.S. Government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum."
He also accuses the United States of "threatening behavior" on an unprecedented scale, citing the temporary grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales' plane last week. The jet, which had left Moscow, was forced to land in Austria after other European countries allegedly closed their airspace amid suspicions that Snowden was aboard.
"Never before in history have states conspired to force to the ground a sovereign President's plane to effect a search for a political refugee," the letter says.
The writer invites those addressed to join him at Sheremetyevo airport "for a brief statement and discussion regarding the next steps forward in my situation."
They are instructed to gather in the arrival hall at Terminal F, where an airport staff member will meet them holding a sign labeled "G9." They should bring the invitation and identification documents "as security will likely be tight at this meeting," the letter says.
In her Facebook post, Lokshina, the Russian Human Rights Watch staffer, says she received the e-mailed invitation close to 5 p.m. Thursday and acknowledges that she does not know if it is real. CNN has not been able to verify if the letter is genuine.
Representatives of human rights groups arrived at the airport, where a large group of Russian and international journalists had gathered in anticipation of the meeting.
Some told reporters they were there because they are curious to speak to Snowden and hear what he has to say.
Latin American asylum offers
Since his arrival in Moscow, Snowden -- who faces espionage charges in the United States -- has requested asylum in dozens of countries, sparking a surge in speculation about his next steps.
The presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia have said their countries would give him asylum, and Nicaragua's president said he would offer it "if circumstances permit."
Snowden has admitted releasing classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs to the media and argues that he did so to expose serious violations of the U.S. Constitution.
He is slammed as a traitor by critics and hailed as a hero by his supporters.
WikiLeaks, a group that facilitates the anonymous leaking of secret information through its website, has been aiding Snowden in his bids for asylum.
The group said via Twitter on Friday: "We can confirm a meeting will take place between the representatives of a number of human rights groups and Edward Snowden today."
WikiLeaks said in a Twitter post Wednesday that Snowden's "flight of liberty" campaign was starting, promising further details.
But details about where Snowden is going -- and how he'll get there -- have remained hard to come by.
U.S. officials told Chinese officials in Washington this week that they're disappointed with the way China and Hong Kong handled the Snowden case, saying their actions undermined trust. China said that Hong Kong authorities acted in accordance with the law.
CNN's Alla Eshchenko reported from Moscow and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN's Phil Black and Marilia Brocchetto contributed to this report.