By Robert Robertson
REYKJAVIK (Reuters) - The leaker who revealed top secret U.S. surveillance programs says he hopes to find shelter in Iceland, but he may be disappointed by the reception from a new government seen as less keen than predecessors to attract exiles and Internet renegades.
The country of 320,000 people has served as the home base for the fundraising efforts of anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks and earlier earned a reputation as a safe haven by taking in American fugitive former chess champion Bobby Fischer in 2005.
Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor at the U.S. National Security Agency now holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong after divulging NSA secrets, said he hoped to go to a country which encompassed his values of Internet freedom, naming Iceland.
But the government of newly-elected conservative Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, while still untested, is widely seen as closer to Washington than past administrations and less keen to foster the island country's cyber-haven image.
Snowden has yet to make a formal application for asylum and would have to go to Iceland to make the request, said Kristin Volundarsdottir, head of Iceland's Directorate of Immigration. Gunnlaugsson's government did not otherwise comment on the case.
"I would be very surprised if they (the government) would be eager to engage in any international disputes with the U.S. And it is pretty difficult to be granted asylum here," said Stefania Oskarsdottir, lecturer in political science at the University of Iceland.
"I think what this guy is saying is based on something he is imagining or hoping for rather than actual facts."
As a U.S. citizen, Snowden would not need a visa to enter Iceland and could immediately apply for asylum. He would be free to live in Iceland while immigration authorities decide his case, which could take more than a year, according to Helga Vala Helgadottir, a lawyer specializing in asylum cases.
"The government is perceived as being less welcoming to asylum seekers," said Helgadottir. While the decision rests with immigration authorities, Snowden could appeal to the interior ministry if his application were rejected.
Iceland has an extradition treaty with the United States, but it is unclear whether it would cover any crimes that Snowden might be charged with.
An Icelandic foundation championing free speech has offered to help him.
"We have a lawyer, we have everything set up," said Smari McCarthy, head of the International Modern Media Institute and a member of the Pirate Party, a movement that promotes Internet freedom and holds three seats in Iceland's 63-seat parliament.
REFUGE FOR CHESS CHAMPION
Were Snowden to reach Iceland, his arrival could put public pressure on the government by voters proud of their image of supporting media freedoms and also angry about the secrecy that surrounded the collapse of their banks in 2008.
"This is coming at a very interesting point for us, because obviously in the wake of our financial collapse there is a very big emphasis on a pro-truth society here," said Katrin Oddsdottir, lawyer at law firm Rettur in Iceland, which specializes in human rights issues.
In 2010, with a center-left government in power in Iceland, WikiLeaks registered a company called Sunshine Press Productions there for its fundraising.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, now holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden for questioning over sex crimes, visited Iceland several times in the run-up to some of the website's major releases.
Icelandic member of parliament Birgitta Jonsdottir helped Assange put together the "Collateral Murder" video package, which included footage of a U.S. helicopter attack on Iraqi civilians in which two Reuters journalists were killed.
Jonsdottir has campaigned to make a free speech and Internet safe-haven status for Iceland enshrined in law.
Wikileaks won a ruling this year in Iceland's Supreme Court against MasterCard's local partner. The court upheld a lower court's ruling that the payment card firm had illegally ended its contract with the website.
In the Fischer case, the former child chess prodigy was wanted by the United States for evading taxes and breaking sanctions by playing a match in Yugoslavia in 1992. After years living abroad he was detained in Japan for nine months, until Iceland offered him asylum and citizenship in 2005. He spent his last years in Iceland before dying in 2008.
It was a conservative coalition of the same parties now in power in Iceland that pushed through the highly unusual step of granting Fischer citizenship.
"So the most interesting precedent that we have is actually a precedent which dates from a time when the same parties were in power as are now," said Oddsdottir.
(Reporting by and Patrick Lannin; additional reporting by Mia Shanley and Anna Ringstrom; Writing by Niklas Pollard; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Peter Graff)