The Justice Department will not seek the death penalty for Edward Snowden if he returns to the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote to his Russian counterpart this week.
In a letter dated Tuesday, Holder assured the Russian minister of justice that Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who blew the lid on classified U.S. phone and Internet surveillance programs, would not be tortured if he entered U.S. custody. Snowden, charged with espionage, has been holed up in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for the last month. He is now reportedly seeking asylum in Russia, despite Russian president Vladimir Putin's earlier insistence that he stop leaking classified information as a condition of receiving asylum status.
"Any questioning of Mr. Snowden could be conducted only with his consent: his participation would be entirely voluntary, and his legal counsel would be present should he wish it," wrote Holder. The charges currently being brought against Snowden do not carry the death penalty, and "the United States would not seek the death penalty even if Mr. Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes."
Sources close to Edward Snowden have said they fear he would receive the same treatment as Wikileaks leaker Pfc. Bradley Manning if he were to enter U.S. custody. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has accused the United States of subjecting Manning to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture."
"[Snowden] would almost certainly be confined in total isolation, even longer than the more than eight months Manning suffered during his three years of imprisonment before his trial began recently,” wrote Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg in a Washington Post op-ed defending Snowden's choice to flee arrest.
Unlike Manning, Snowden would be subject to a civilian trial, not a military tribunal. However, that does not rule out the possibility that Snowden could face solitary confinement, which the UN's top torture expert has also denounced.