Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who has identified himself as the source of leaks about the US National Security Agency’s surveillance programmes, is believed to be holed up in a hotel in Hong Kong.
Edward Snowden, 29, told The Guardian he flew to Hong Kong on May 20, after leaking information about the NSA’s surveillance programme.
He said that he chose Hong Kong because the city has “a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”.
Edward Snowden’s current whereabouts cannot be confirmed, and the Hong Kong government has not publicly commented on his case, although journalists are staking out various hotels in Hong Kong where they believe Snowden may be hiding.
The US says it has referred the issue to its Department of Justice as a criminal matter. Some analysts and experts believe Edward Snowden faces the strong risk of extradition to the US, if such a move is requested.
Hong Kong signed an extradition treaty with the US shortly before the territory returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
“You get extraditions several times a year from Hong Kong,” said Clive Grossman S.C, a barrister and former vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association.
Under the Fugitive Offenders (United States of America) Order, both Hong Kong and the US have agreed to extradite someone who has committed “an offence which is punishable under the laws of both Parties by imprisonment or other form of detention for more than one year… unless surrender for such offence is prohibited by the laws of the requested Party.”
Regina Ip, a legislator and Hong Kong’s former Secretary for Security, told reporters that the Hong Kong government was “obliged to comply with the terms of agreements” with the US government, including extradition treaties.
“It’s actually in his best interest to leave Hong Kong,” she said, referring to Edward Snowden.
However, the extradition process can be a long and complicated one in sensitive cases like this, said Tim Parker, an immigration lawyer based in Hong Kong.
“There are a number of hurdles that could come up for the extraditing authority, to the advantage of Snowden,” he said.
“There is a bar under Hong Kong’s extradition law… to extradition for an offence that is of a political character, [where] the prosecution is thought not just to be the application of the criminal law, but to crush that person or to crush their dissent,” Tim Parker said.
Another potential hurdle would be any intervention from Beijing, which could block an extradition if it raised questions “going to their national security, foreign affairs, or defense,” Tim Parker said.
A handover could also be halted if Edward Snowden was believed to be in danger receiving of inhumane treatment in the US, Tim Parker added.
“If Mr. Snowden is at risk of being detained under the sort of conditions that Bradley Manning has reportedly been detained, which the UN special rapporteurs have said amounted to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment… then Hong Kong would not be allowed under its law, and could not extradite him to the US.”
A further consideration is what visa Edward Snowden used to enter Hong Kong. If his visa is due to expire soon, a formal extradition request may not be needed.
However, it would not be “legally possible” under Hong Kong law for Edward Snowden to be forcibly taken to Beijing, Tim Parker said.
“That would be a serious breach of the autonomy under Hong Kong’s One Country Two Systems arrangement. There aren’t really any known cases of that having been done off the books [either],” he added.