Snowden Asylum: Leaker Faces Hard Choices While In Hiding
ENAV and KELVIN K. CHAN 06/11/13 09:03 PM
HONG KONG — Edward Snowden, the
former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about U.S. surveillance
programs, has few options to stay one step ahead of the authorities while in
One possibility is to seek asylum in a place that does not have
an extradition pact with the United States — there are a few in Asia a short
flight away from Hong Kong where he was last spotted, but none where he is
On Tuesday the 29-year-old Snowden's whereabouts were unknown, a
day after he checked out of a trendy hotel in the Chinese territory of Hong
Kong. But large photos of his face were splashed on most Hong Kong newspapers
with headlines such as “Deep Throat Hides in HK,” and “World's
Most Wanted Man Breaks Cover in Hong Kong.”
The coverage is likely to increase the chances of him being
recognized although he could still blend with the city's tens of thousands of
expatriates from the United States, Britain, Australia and Europe.
If and when the Justice Department charges him – and it's not
certain when that will be – its next step will likely be to ask the
International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, for a provisional
request to arrest him pending extradition to the United States.
Assuming that Snowden is still in Hong Kong, the judicial
proceedings for an extradition request could take a year, and once completed it
would be up to Hong Kong's leader, known as the chief executive, to decide on
handing over Snowden, said Michael Blanchflower, a Hong Kong lawyer with three
decades of experience in extradition cases.
“Ultimately it is his decision,” he said.
But even if the chief executive allows the extradition, the
fugitive can request a judicial review and those decisions could be appealed up
through three court levels, Blanchflower said.
Although a semiautonomous part of China, the former British
colony has an independent justice system based on the British legal structure.
One option for Snowden would be to claim he is the object of political
persecution, and fight the issue in the courts to avoid extradition. He could
argue that he would be subject to cruel and humiliating treatment in the United
States. Hong Kong changed its regulations six months ago to require that a court
consider cruel and humiliating treatment and not simply torture when
considering extradition requests.
It's up to “the Chief Executive to determine whether the
offence is one that's of a political character, in which case the extradition
is blocked,” said Hong Kong-based lawyer, Tim Parker.
However, the strategy carries considerable risk because the U.S.
could simply provide diplomatic assurances that he would not be subject to
cruel or humiliating treatment.
“At that point it would be difficult for Hong Kong to
resist deporting him,” said Patricia Ho, a Hong Kong lawyer who
specializes in asylum and refugee claims.
But as things stand now, there is nothing to prevent Snowden
from traveling to a destination of his choice — to one of the handful of nearby
jurisdictions or countries that do not have extradition treaties with the
One of the Asian countries without an American treaty is China,
though there is no guarantee Beijing would want to risk a confrontation with
the United States by taking Snowden in, even if it gained a windfall of
sensitive American intelligence information in the process. Snowden himself has
given no indication that he is prepared to cooperate with any foreign
intelligence service, including China's.
China's state media has confined its coverage of the Snowden
affair to factual reports, and on online social media, China's relatively
unfettered venue for public discourse, comments have been largely muted.
“People in China are used to not having security and
privacy on the internet, so this does not come as a big surprise,” Peking
University journalism professor Hu Yong said in an interview. Official media,
Hu said, would “try not to focus too much on how wrong the practice is, or
whether the leaker is right or wrong. They will use the news to highlight that
China is not the only country with such practices.”
Another Asian flight possibility for Snowden is the
self-governing island of Taiwan, which split from China in 1949 after a
protracted civil war, and since 1979, has not had formal diplomatic relations
with the U.S.
In lieu of a formal extradition treaty, American extraction
requests to Taiwan are examined on a case by case basis.
An official at the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taipei – the
American Institute in Taiwan – said Taiwan has generally been cooperative on
the extradition issue.
“Taipei has so far been pretty good on responding to our
requests,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because
of the sensitivity of the issue.
Also, any attempt by Snowden to come to Taiwan could prove
extremely embarrassing to the government of Ma Ying-jeou, which while doing its
best to improve relations with China, also seeks to maintain close ties with
the United States, its major security backer. An official at the Justice
Ministry said Tuesday there were no indications at all that Snowden would make
any attempt to land on the island.
Aside from numerous flights from Hong Kong's busy international
airport, Snowden could take an hour-long high speed ferry ride to Macau, also a
semiautonomous region of China. From Macau he could hop over to Guangdong
province in mainland China.
Beyond Taiwan and China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and North Korea
are also theoretical destinations for Snowden, because they lack extradition treaties
with the U.S. But the communist or authoritarian systems they share make them
unlikely destinations for a man who has gone to considerable lengths to portray
his decision to reveal National Security Agency surveillance programs as an act
Outside of Asia, Snowden might also consider seeking asylum in
countries like Iceland and Russia. According to the Kommersant Daily, Moscow
has said it might provide asylum. But Russia is also an authoritarian nation,
so there is no guarantee that Snowden would accept any offer that Moscow
Enav reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Christopher Bodeen in Hong
Kong and AP video-journalist Isolda Morillo in Beijing contributed to this