F'in international areas, how do they work?
July 4, 2013 4:26 PM   Subscribe

So Edward Snowden is presumably stranded in the international transit area of the Moscow Airport. I understand this, and understand what international transit areas are (mainly) and why they exist. What I don't understand is how they actually work...

It seems absurd to imagine that you could steal/murder/whatever in the international area of an Airport and not be immediately arrested. But whose laws apply? Who would come get you if you nicked a sandwich from the cafe without paying, or to stretch things a bit further, strangled the cashier?

Why is Snowden seemingly 'safe'? Because he's wanted by the US instead of Russia? Would he be similarly 'safe' if he were in the international transit area at JFK? (I'd guess not). Just because of the headache it would cause to 'go get him'? Or because it would be a breech of to do so?

Oh, and to get really crazy, how does being on a boat in the middle of the ocean compare?

(Please note that in the context of this question, I don't particularly care about Snowden's plight or the specifics of his actions, just the general case logistics of his current location.)
posted by wrok to Law & Government (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I started typing something out then remembered this Slate article was far better than my gibberings.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:44 PM on July 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My understanding is that it's something like being in a boat flagged with Hong Kong flag, parked in a Russian harbor.

He's on Russian soil, and their criminal laws would, I'm sure, prevail should he commit some crime. But he hasn't gotten a visa or gone through customs, so he hasn't exactly been admitted to Russia either. If he was just some regular person who committed a petty crime while in that area, he'd probably just be sent back where he came from.

He's safe because the Russians (presumably) aren't going to let anyone come get him, but they also don't want to technically let him in the country. But he is also not safe, in that Russia could let anyone come get him if they wanted to. My impression is that doing this is how the Russians can help him without pissing anyone off. They are, it seems to me, trying to be neutral in the whole thing.
posted by gjc at 4:47 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

what makes you think that space isn't under the jurisdiction of the host nation? just because they choose to not apply border controls to people in that area doesn't mean that they cede territorial rights.

I would expect that a) the US can't just go and pick him up because that would amount to an invasion, and b) if you committed a crime that the regular police would come and arrest you.
posted by russm at 4:48 PM on July 4, 2013

Best answer: My understanding is that Russia pretty much gets to decide how it works in a Russian transit zone. Additionally, he's not necessarily physically located in the actual airport according to this Slate article & this WSJ article.

(And on preview, it's the same Slate article.)
posted by insectosaurus at 4:48 PM on July 4, 2013

Best answer: From NPR:
...And you're kind of left at the mercy of the national authorities or even private security companies operating these detention spaces in terms of your basic conditions, your ability to move freely. In some places, they might allow you out at night if there's no other passengers in the transit zone or the places you are confined 24/7.

CORNISH: At this point, we don't know exactly where Edward Snowden is. But can you help us understand how the boundaries of a transit zone can be defined, because I've heard that it doesn't have to mean that you're stuck at the airport.

GAMMELTOFT-HANSEN: Yeah. So that intuitively we think about transit zone as a geographically defined space within the airport. But legally speaking and in reality, governments have taken sort of quite few liberties in creating what you might call sort of smooth spaces, and then in some situation including nearby hotels, nearby detention centers, even a court many miles away from the actual airport and still sort of maintaining this idea, well, this is part of an airport transit zone. You know, persons being moved back and forth between these places are never really inside France or Russia in this case.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:16 PM on July 4, 2013

Honestly, I think it's a bunch of malarky.

My experience changing planes in Moscow is that there's an immigration booth *inside* the jetway where you get your transit visa stamped for the 40 minutes you're waiting for the next flight.

Sure, that could just be specific to the two times I've been through Moscow airports, but the idea of an immigration-free "transit area" is entirely dissimilar to my experience.
posted by colin_l at 11:17 PM on July 4, 2013

I wonder what he is using for money. How does he pay for e.g.,food? Is he still wearing the same clothes or has someone provided laundry or dry cleaning?
posted by Cranberry at 11:41 PM on July 4, 2013

Best answer: Malarkey? I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean in this instance. This seems to be one of those cases where people imagine that there's some global government setting the rules, but really it's just a bunch of multi-lateral treaties where individual nations with complete and utter sovereignty over their own territories agree to certain facts and certain legal fictions with a view toward minimizing the number of times that heads of state have to call each other. Russia is under no real obligation to arrest Snowden, and they clearly have no incentive to do so either. They don't want to, so they don't. It's really as simple as that. I'm sure if they wanted to they could exercise their sovereignty, but they do not want to and the US, frankly, has very little leverage right now barring an ugly trade war that would help wreck our fragile economy (all that oil and gas).

I mean, you can parse out the legalism and the treaty language if you like, but it's really only germane if Snowden were, say, fighting extradition in a Russian court under Russian law with a Russian attorney.

how does being on a boat in the middle of the ocean compare

That's a tricky area unto itself. The boat is in international waters and in most cases (say, outside the piracy zone off Somalia monitored by the multi-national task force) cannot be detained without the permission of the nationality under which it is flagged (legally) or owned (practically). There are a lot of problems with cruise ships, international and near-indentured-servitude crews, and the law in recent years and steps are being taken to tighten that up.

But say Snowden were on a boat. There's plenty of precedent for the US to board the boat and seize him under extraterritorial jurisdiction (again, not so much defined by treaty as a reality that is out of the practical ability of other states to oppose) and shrug off the consequences later. The Achille Lauro hijackers were in a plane over international waters that was forced down to an airbase in Italy (which itself sparked a not-quite-weapons-drawn standoff between US and Italian authorities). If you're at sea and you don't have a military escort, you might as well be defenseless.
posted by dhartung at 1:48 AM on July 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I saw a documentary about people living in a zone like this in the Z├╝rich airport. They were almost exclusively people seeking asylum from war torn third world regions (I think). It was a fascinating program and what I remember is that...
1. Different asylum rules applied after they had officially left the airport transit zone and entered 'Switzerland.' It was in the interests of the Swiss to prevent them from entering.
2. Repatriation was the financial responsibility of the airline that flew them to Switzerland if it was known / proven which airline it was. Thus, customs agents met certain African / Asian / other 'high risk' flights and checked passports as the people stepped off the gangway. If someone was not eligible to enter Switzerland, the customs officials could prove it then and there and the airline that flew them in had to fly them out.
3. The people who wanted to enter Switzerland would attempt to destroy their passport upon landing while they were in the transit zone. I think not having a passport helped to prevent them from being repatriated and may also help them to claim asylum. The asylum applicants were accused of lying about their countries of origin to increase their chances of granting asylum.
4. The documentary showed something about the people's lives who lived in this airport zone. They had some kind of dormitory style boarding and were given food, money and close (I think). There were volunteers from religious groups and other organizations who helped them with their asylum applications.
5. The applicants had free time in which they simply walked around the airport. It was pretty sad to see these people wander around the airport essentially stuck (or voluntarily stuck) in the transit section of an airport.
6. If their asylum application was rejected (highly likely) they had a choice of being voluntarily repatriated as a 'normal' airline passenger or forcefully repatriated in a straight jacket / mask / handcuffs on an expensive special flight. At some point of the process they were removed from the airport transit section and moved to a jail/prison also located in the airport (I think).
7. I felt that the Swiss officials interviewed generally felt bad for the asylum applicants but also thought that they were being lied to 100% of the time.
8. What a weird consequence of law and policy that creates a bunch of people wandering around an airport unable to leave.
posted by jazh at 6:41 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

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