The Hong Kong government on Sunday allowed American whistleblower Edward Snowden to board a flight to Moscow, rejecting requests from the U.S. for his extradition.
The former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, who arrived in Moscow on Sunday evening, was “bound for Ecuador via a safe route” for the purposes of asylum and was accompanied by diplomats from the country, according to a statement issued by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Sarah Harrison, a member of the WikiLeaks legal team and close aide of its chief Julian Assange, was also accompanying Mr. Snowden and had helped arrange his “safe exit” from Hong Kong.
Ecuador’s Foreign Minister confirmed on Sunday evening that Mr. Snowden had put in a request for asylum.
Explaining its decision to allow Mr. Snowden to leave, the Hong Kong government said there was “no legal basis” for it to prevent him from travelling. The government said in a statement on Sunday that documents provided by the U.S. seeking Mr. Snowden’s arrest “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law” although it did not specify what those requirements were.
While the Hong Kong government said he had left “through a lawful and normal channel,” U.S. officials, however, were quoted as saying they were puzzled by how Mr. Snowden had been allowed to travel to Moscow as they had revoked his passport last week. Hong Kong’s decision to allow Mr. Snowden to leave came after the U.S. had asked for a provisional warrant to be issued to arrest the 29-year-old, whose revelations have embarrassed Washington by detailing a vast domestic and overseas surveillance programme being run by the National Security Agency (NSA).
In a fresh exposé on Sunday published by the South China Morning Post , Mr. Snowden said the NSA had hacked into Chinese mobile phone companies and even targeted the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing. The Hong Kong government said in its statement it had formally written to the U.S. “requesting clarification” on Mr. Snowden’s earlier revelations regarding hacking attacks targeting computers in Hong Kong.
Reacting to the report, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, published a commentary on Sunday strongly attacking the U.S. “They demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age,” the commentary said, adding that Washington needed to “come clean about its record first” with “the drama around Snowden [supporting] China’s stand on the issue of cyber security”.
Yet despite Mr. Snowden’s apparent usefulness to China as an intelligence asset — at the very least, to score a point over the U.S. amid recent tensions on cyber security — the decision by the authorities in the Chinese Special Administrative Region (SAR) to let the whistleblower leave was seen by analysts as underscoring Beijing’s keenness to prevent the issue from derailing its overall ties with Washington.
While extraditing Mr. Snowden to the U.S. may have led the Chinese leadership to have been seen as weak by a domestic audience that has closely followed the case, by allowing the whistleblower to leave for another country, Beijing will no longer have to grapple with the tricky challenge of deciding his fate.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry in a statement backed the decision made by Hong Kong. The SAR, which is under Chinese sovereignty, enjoys autonomy on a number of issues, has its own Constitution and an independent judiciary, but defers to Beijing on foreign policy and defence matters.
“Hong Kong SAR is a society ruled by law,” spokesperson Hua Chunying said in Beijing. “In line with the Basic Law of Hong Kong SAR and the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, the central government has always respected the Hong Kong SAR government in handling issues in accordance with the law”.
Mr. Assange, who is himself fighting extradition to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault, said that he was “thankful to the countries that have been doing the right thing in these matters”.
“WikiLeaks hopes that Ed Snowden’s rights will be protected, including his right to free communication”, he said.
“The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr. Snowden’s rights and protecting him as a person,” added Baltasar Garzon, a former Spanish judge, legal director of Wikileaks and lawyer for Mr Assange. “What is being done to Mr. Snowden and to Mr. Julian Assange — for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest — is an assault against the people,” he said.