Russia should grant Edward Snowden political asylum, because he is a human rights defender and could face the death penalty in the United States, the speaker of Russia's lower house said Friday.
"I consider Edward Snowden a human rights defender, who advocates for the rights of millions of people in the world," speaker of the State Duma Sergei Naryshkin told the Rossiya-24 state news channel.
"The United States, which is demanding his handover, uses such measures as the death penalty and the risk is great that this punishment awaits Edward Snowden. We do not have the right to let it happen. So I believe that Russia should give Snowden political asylum, or temporary asylum," he said.
Snowden on Friday told rights activists he would seek asylum in Russia, in his first encounter with the outside world since becoming marooned at a Moscow airport three weeks ago.
The meeting at Sheremetyevo airport with rights groups and lawyers appeared an attempt by Snowden to find a way out of an increasingly difficult situation as he seeks to escape US espionage charges for leaking sensational details of widespread US surveillance activities.
Participants, including representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, told reporters after the meeting that Snowden told them he wanted asylum in Russia since he could not fly out of the country without travel documents.
They also said that the 30-year-old had vowed not to harm the United States, apparently in response to a key Kremlin condition that he stop leaking damaging information about Washington's spy programme.
Snowden has been holed up at the airport's transit zone since arriving on a flight from Hong Kong on June 23 before his US passport was revoked.
Human Rights Watch representative Tanya Lokshina told reporters that Snowden said "he wants to stay here."
He has applied for asylum in 21 countries. Moscow said last week that Snowden had withdrawn his application for asylum in Russia after learning it was conditional on not harming US interests.
"As far as I understand, he is seriously ready to obtain political asylum in Russia," ruling party lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov, who also attended the meeting, told reporters.
The Kremlin swiftly responded, saying Snowden could stay in the country if he stops revealing confidential US information, reiterating the position set out by President Vladimir Putin.
"Mr. Snowden could hypothetically stay in Russia if he: first, completely stops the activities harming our American partners and US-Russian relations and second, if he asks for this himself," Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in comments quoted by Russian news agencies.
According to lawyer Genri Reznik who was present at the meeting, Snowden "promised that he would not act to harm the United States".
"He views the Russian president's position with understanding," said Reznik. "He understands that giving him political asylum will be complicated and will strain ties between Russia and the US."
In a picture of the meeting posted by Lokshina from HRW, Snowden, wearing a grey shirt, looked healthy and calm as he sat at a desk flanked by two women, one of whom was an employee of the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website, Sarah Harrison, who arrived with him from Hong Kong.
Nikonov said he appeared to be in "decent physical shape."
The campaigners had on Thursday night received an emailed invitation apparently from Snowden to attend the former government contractor's first publicised encounter since he arrived.
According to the invitation which was posted on Facebook by Lokshina, Snowden wanted to discuss his "next steps" as he seeks to escape US authorities after revealing that the American intelligence services were seizing vast amounts of Internet and phone data around the world.
In a message, Snowden thanked Latin American states for considering his asylum requests but denounced "an unlawful campaign by officials in the US government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum."
Snowden has made no public appearances since arriving at the state-controlled airport in the Russian capital. According to officials, he has spent the whole time in the airport transit zone but there has not been a single verifiable sighting of him until now.
The meeting comes after the United States on Thursday told China it was upset it did not hand over Snowden after he fled to Hong Kong, saying that the decision had undermined relations.
President Barack Obama, meeting senior Chinese officials who were in Washington for annual talks, "expressed his disappointment and concern" over the Snowden case, the White House said.