Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton employee who reportedly exposed top secret documents showing the U.S. government conducts massive domestic surveillance with the assistance of major U.S. companies, is hiding in Hong Kong and faces a likely extradition fight. It's possible China's opinion on the state of human rights in the U.S. will shape the outcome.
Snowden's precise whereabouts in Hong Kong are the subject of intense media speculation. An employee of Hong Kong's Mira Hotel told CNN someone named Edward Snowden checked out of the hotel Monday. "His credit card is going to max out pretty quickly," Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill, who is in the city, told CNN.
Snowden traveled to Hong Kong on May 20 from Hawaii, where he lived with his girlfriend and earned around $200,000 a year as a government contractor assigned to the National Security Agency. This was after preparing to release the highly classified documents that attracted universal shock in early June. His identity was revealed Sunday by the Guardian at his request.
"The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to. There is no public oversight," said Snowden, 29, explaining his decision to leak the documents. "I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."
The whistle-blower said he was attracted to Hong Kong because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent." His true ambition is asylum in Iceland, he said. Kristin Arnadottir, Iceland's ambassador to China, told CNN anyone seeking asylum there must first be physically present in the island nation.
Some lawmakers and attorneys in the former British colony, which has operated under a semi-autonomous set of laws since reuniting with the mainland government in 1997, questioned Snowden's choice of refuge.
"You get extraditions several times a year from Hong Kong," Clive Grossman, a former vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, told the BBC. "It's actually in his best interest to leave Hong Kong," said former Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip.
Others, however, say there's a decent chance of Snowden being granted refugee status. Several local legal sources were quoted in media reports saying human rights, in particular coverage of alleged WikiLeaks source Pfc. Bradley Manning, who has been imprisoned since 2010, could tip the balance.
"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," Hong Kong-based immigration attorney Tim Parker told the BBC. "If Mr. Snowden is at risk of being detained under the sort of conditions that Bradley Manning has reportedly been detained, which the U.N. 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 U.S."
Hong Kong-based human rights attorney Patricia Ho agrees.
"With the reports about the treatment of Bradley Manning, there's an arguable case for him facing [cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment]," Ho told the South China Morning Post. She said that a recent Hong Kong appeals court ruling prohibits such extraditions.
An application for refugee status would be handled administratively and not by the courts, Ho said.
Cosmo Beatson, of refugee-assisting Hong Kong-based organization Vision First, told the Morning Post although refugee status might be possible for Snowden, he would "have to surrender his passport, and he'd have to stay in Hong Kong until his claim is settled. I don't see him wanting to give that up if he's being chased."