Russian President Vladimir Putin says fugitive former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden is still in a Moscow airport transit zone, rejecting calls for his extradition to the United States.
Putin, speaking while on a visit to Finland, also described Snowden as a "free man" whose arrival in Russia was "completely unexpected" for the Russian authorities.
"Mr. Snowden indeed arrived in Moscow. It was a complete surprise to us," Putin said. "He arrived as a transit passenger and he doesn't need a visa or any other documents. As a transit passenger, he has the right to buy a ticket and fly wherever he wants."'
The exact whereabouts of Snowden, who flew on June 23 to Moscow from Hong Kong, had until now been unclear.
Snowden faces U.S. criminal charges for exposing details of secret U.S. surveillance programs.
Putin said that because there is no extradition agreement with the United States, Russia could not meet the U.S. request. He also bluntly dismissed U.S. accusations.
"Any accusations against Russia are nonsensical and absurd," he said. "As a transit passenger, he is in the transit zone now."
Putin compared Snowden to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been provided asylum in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.
"[WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange] and Mr. Snowden consider themselves human rights defenders and are fighting for the dissemination of information," Putin said. "Ask yourselves if such people should be extradited for imprisonment or not."
The Snowden case comes as U.S.-Russia relations are strained over Syria and a Russian ban on adoptions of Russian children by U.S. citizens. The United States also has criticized Russia's crackdown on opposition and civil activists under Putin.
Kerry Calls For Calm
Earlier this month, Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper and "The Washington Post" cited documents provided by Snowden to reveal a vast U.S. government effort to collect and monitor the phone and Internet data of millions of people in America and around the world.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has said the surveillance programs have congressional and judicial oversight and have helped to thwart as many as 50 terrorist plots, some of them aimed at targets in the United States.
Speaking on a visit to Saudi Arabia on June 22, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on the Russian authorities to be "calm" and said there was no need to raise the level of confrontation with Moscow over Snowden.
Kerry also indicated that he hoped Russia did not believe its interest lay in siding with a fugitive from justice.
On June 25, Kerry told reporters during a visit to India that there would be consequences for U.S. relations with countries that help or harbor Snowden and called on Russia to cooperate in extraditing Snowden back to the United States.
"I would urge [the Russian authorities] to live by the standards of the law because that's in the interests of everybody," he said. "In the last two years, we have transferred seven prisoners to Russia that they wanted. So I think reciprocity in the enforcement of the law is pretty important."
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that while there is no extradition treaty between Russia and the United States, there is a "clear legal basis" to expel Snowden because he faces legal charges and his passport has been revoked.
Last week, U.S. authorities charged Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and the willful communication of classified intelligence information to an unauthorized person.
Each of the three charges carries a maximum 10-year prison penalty following a conviction.
With reporting by ITAR-TASS and AFP