A US government jet was lying in wait in Copenhagen to extradite the whistleblower Edward Snowden if he had come to Scandinavia after fleeing to Moscow in June 2013, the Danish government has revealed.
The twin-engined Gulfstream aircraft, which had previously been used to fly Abu Hamza to the US from the UK, landed shortly before the FBI called on Scandinavian police forces to arrest Snowden and hand him over for extradition.
Søren Pind, the justice minister, wrote to Danish MPs (pdf): “The purpose of the aircraft’s presence in Copenhagen airport is most likely to have been to have the opportunity to transport Edward Snowden to the United States if he had been handed over from Russia or another country.”
This week, Pind confirmed to the Danish parliament that the aircraft had been given high-level permission to land in Copenhagen, but said he did not know the purpose of its visit.
“I must note that my answer was not adequate at this point,” he wrote in the letter, dated Thursday 4 February and revealed by MPs on Friday. “Usually, information of this nature is confidential because of Denmark’s relations with foreign states. In view of the impression that my earlier answer may have created, I think it proper to inform parliament thereof. The US authorities have also been informed.”
The admission confirms speculation about the aircraft after enthusiasts in the UK saw the jet flying at very high altitude through Scottish airspace on its way to Copenhagen, as first reported in 2014 by the Register. The Gulfstream jet was identified by its registration number, N977GA, as the aircraft used to extradite radial Muslim cleric Abu Hamza, and other prisoners, to the US in 2012.
Denmark’s state-owned air traffic control agency, Navair, granted N977GA permission to stay in Copenhagen from 25 to 27 June 2013, but with flexibility of three days either side of those dates, according to documents released by the justice ministry last week following a freedom of information request by Peter Kofod of the whistleblowing organisation Veron.
On 27 June 2013, the fugitive whistleblower was seeking an onward destination from Moscow, where he had fled from Hong Kong, after handing over to the Guardian thousands of top-secret documents revealing the spying activities of the US National Security Agency.At that time, the FBI wrote from the US embassy in Copenhagen to the police forces ofDenmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland to say that Snowden was wanted for theft and espionage.
“The US Department of Justice is prepared to immediately draft the necessary paperwork to request the extradition of Snowden to the US from whichever country he travels to from Moscow,” the letter, dated 27 June, states. “The FBI expresses its gratitude … for any assistance that can be provided on this important matter.”
Redacted emails among the documents released by the Danish government reveal high-level discussion about N977GA between Danish police and top civil servants between 25 and 27 June. Permission for the jet to land was granted on 24 June.
The United States took drastic methods in trying to grab Snowden in the summer of 2013: a plane carrying the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was forced to land in Vienna because of rumours that Snowden was on board.
The Danish government has always insisted that it would cooperate with requests by its allies to help bring criminals to justice. However, the revelation that Denmark was prepared to cooperate with the extradition of Snowden from Scandinavia is embarrassing to the former coalition government led by Social Democratic prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Josephine Fock, MP for the Alternative party, said: “At the time the aircraft was given permission to land in Copenhagen, the US had not yet given assurances that Snowden would not face the death penalty or torture – Denmark does not extradite people to such countries.”
The US attorney general wrote to his Russian counterpart only in July 2013, a month later, to say that the charges faced by Snowden did not carry the death penalty.
Nicholaj Villumsen, MP and foreign affairs spokesman for the Red Green Alliance, said: “It is grotesque that the then government put the interests of the United States above citizens’ freedoms. They violated fundamental democratic rights. We owe Edward Snowden a big thank you for his revelations of illegal US mass surveillance. Denmark should therefore in no way participate in the hunt for him.”
The clear intention of the Danish government to cooperate with the US over Snowden suggested that Scandinavian governments “would probably do the same with Julian Assange”, were he to travel to Sweden to face rape allegations, Villumsen said. Assange’s insistence that he faces a risk of extradition was a central aspect of his appeal to the UN working group on arbitrary detention,which on Friday ruled in his favour.