U.S. whistleblower faces uncertain fate in Hong Kong

It’s a surprise that he fled to Chinese territory, which has an extradition treaty with U.S.

June 11, 2013 02:04 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:20 pm IST - BEIJING

Edward Snowden, 29, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, who leaked secret documents detailing a widespread surveillance programme, is reported to be hiding out in a Hong Kong five-star hotel as the U.S. considers launching a criminal case against him.

Mr. Snowden’s decision to flee to Hong Kong on May 20 from Hawaii, where he was employed by the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, has come as a surprise, given that Hong Kong and the U.S. have, in the past, worked together closely on criminal cases under an extradition treaty Hong Kong signed with Washington shortly before the territory returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Mr. Snowden told The Guardian that he chose Hong Kong because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.”

Should the U.S. eventually choose to extradite Mr. Snowden as it begins a criminal prosecution, his fate will rest in the hands of Hong Kong’s courts, and on the possibility — however unlikely — of intervention by Beijing.

As a ‘Special Administrative Region’ of China, Hong Kong enjoys freedoms that the mainland does not have, such as a free press and an independent judiciary. Hong Kong also has its own Constitution — known as the Basic Law — although Beijing controls foreign policy and defence matters.

While the extradition treaty does make an exception for political cases, there is no recent record of Hong Kong refusing an extradition request from the U.S. It could, however, take months — if not years — for the Hong Kong courts to decide whether the case is political or criminal, if and when the matter comes before them. And, given the recent history of close cooperation on criminal cases, many Hong Kong lawmakers themselves see little likelihood of the territory openly defying on the U.S. on this case.

That the former CIA employee fled the U.S. for the Chinese territory has also raised some eyebrows, particularly in the wake of heightened tensions between both countries over cyber security and hacking attacks, an issue that figured prominently during Friday’s talks between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping.

Complicating Mr. Snowden’s fate is the possibility of intervention by China. Beijing enjoys the right to intervene in an extradition case if it is related to its “defence, foreign affairs, or essential public interest or policy.” As yet, Chinese officials have not commented on the case.

The consensus among diplomats here is that the Chinese government would be unlikely to intervene openly, considering both the interests of the larger relationship with the U.S. and the current sensitivity of relations with Hong Kong, where Beijing’s influence has evoked growing concern among many people.

Only on Friday, as Mr. Xi and Mr. Obama held talks in California, the state media here hailed the start of a “new type” of relations between the two countries. The new Chinese leadership, diplomats say, is unlikely to derail ties — notwithstanding Mr. Snowden’s undeniable value as an intelligence asset — over a single issue, particularly considering Beijing’s sensitivities over recent cases of Chinese citizens having sought asylum in the U.S.

It remains unclear for how long Mr. Snowden will stay on in Hong Kong.

Even on Monday, there were suggestions that he might have already planned his next move. As a U.S. citizen, he is entitled to stay in Hong Kong for three months without a visa.

He told The Guardian that his best hope was the possibility of asylum, with Iceland “at the top of his list.” However, if he remains in Hong Kong, as one Chinese blogger cautioned on Monday, the whistleblower may well have jumped “out of the tiger’s den, and entered the wolf’s lair.”

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