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Hong Kong Silent On Snowden's Fate After U.S. Files Charges

posted 22 Jun 2013, 01:35 by Mpelembe   [ updated 22 Jun 2013, 01:36 ]

Hong Kong authorities remain silent while public opinion splits after the U.S. government filed espionage charges against former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

HONG KONGCHINA (JUNE 22, 2013) (REUTERS) -  Hong Kong authorities were silent on Saturday (June 22) on the fate of a former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor ahead of an expected extradition request by the United States where he has been charged with spying.

But the Apple Daily newspaper said police had provided Snowden with a safe house and protection.

Hong Kong Police Commissioner Andy Tsang declined to give details but said Hong Kong would deal with the case in accordance with the law.

"I will not comment on individual government's requests. According to Hong Kong's current system, if a jurisdiction that has signed the mutual legal assistance treaty has issued a request, then usHong Kong government will treat it in accordance with current Hong Kong laws and systems. As police, we will also handle it in accordance with the relevant laws and systems," he told reporters.

Edward Snowden was charged with theft of U.S. government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, according to the criminal complaint, dated June 14 and made public on Friday (June 21).

The latter two offenses fall under the U.S. Espionage Act and carry penalties of fines and up to 10 years in prison per offense.

Two U.S. sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States was preparing to seek Snowden's extradition from Hong Kong, which is part of China but has wide-ranging autonomy, including an independent judiciary.

Local residents had mixed feelings about Snowden on Saturday.

"If he requested asylum, then from a humanitarian standpoint, we should protect him," said 60-year-old Elli Fan near a street-side banner saying "Protect Snowden. Protect Freedom".

"I think we should (extradite him). Why? Because he probably made a promise when he entered such a sensitive organisation, and now he had eaten his words," said 61-year-old Cheng Kwok-Hung.

Arron Rose, 27-year-old British expat, said Snowden was just trying to serve the people.

"I think maybe he knows more than what he's letting off, and he's releasing it slowly, why shouldn't we know what's going on in the world? Why is it always the government who knows everything and we don't know enough? So he's just giving something back to the people," he said.

The Washington Post, which first reported the criminal complaint earlier on Friday, said the United States had asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant.

Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy legislator and member of the Civic Party, said the Snowden case will put Hong Kong's rule of law to the test.

"It's an international story and it's now in the public eye so it would be a big, big test case for Hong Kong's rule of law," she said.

Mo was one of the two Hong Kong lawmakers who had written to U.S. President Barack Obama, petitioning for leniency against Snowden.

The United States and Hong Kong signed an extradition treaty which came into effect in 1998, a year after Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule.

While espionage and theft of state secrets are not cited specifically, equivalent charges could be pressed against Snowden under Hong Kong's Official Secrets Ordinance, legal experts say.

Snowden, however, could claim political asylum. Under article six of the treaty, extradition should be refused for "an offence of a political character".

Legal sources in Hong Kong say Snowden has already approached prominent human rights lawyers in preparation for a protracted extradition battle.

"I should expect there will be plenty of legal wrangles. Theft, it's not political. But then espionage should be political by nature. And according to our extradition with, or our treaty with the United States anything that's political should come under all kinds of arguments to start with," said Mo.

While China has veto power over extradition proceedings if its "defence or foreign affairs would be significantly affected", this power has rarely been invoked by Beijing for previous cases involving non-Chinese nationals.

Documents leaked by Snowden and revealed by him in Hong Kong showed that the NSA had access to vast amounts of Internet data such as emails, chat rooms and video from large companies such as Facebook and Google, under a government programme known as Prism.

An Icelandic businessman linked to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said on Thursday (June 19) he had readied a private plane in China to fly Snowden to Iceland if Iceland's government would grant asylum.