No clear answers why Snowden remains free despite U.S. request for his arrest

U.S. defense contractor Edward Snowden discusses his motivation behind the NSA leak and why he revealed himself as the whistleblower behind the major story. Courtesy of Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. (Courtesy of Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald)

More than a week has passed since U.S. officials asked the Hong Kong government to arrest Edward Snowden, but the whereabouts of the former contractor who leaked documents about top-level surveillance programs remained unknown Saturday.

The reason for the apparent lack of action in the case is unclear. The delay could be related to the issuing of the warrant. Or officials may still be looking for Snowden, who is believed to be in Hong Kong but could also have found a way to leave the semiautonomous region.

The U.S. government asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant June 14, the same day it filed criminal charges against him, including theft, “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.”

The fact that the U.S. government asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden emerged Friday when The Washington Post disclosed the contents of a sealed criminal complaint that alluded to the request.

Under an extradition treaty between Hong Kong and the United States, a provisional warrant, as opposed to a regular one, is a faster way to detain suspected criminals since it does not require the initial approval of Hong Kong’s leader, currently Leung Chun-ying.

Instead, a judge can issue the warrant immediately. Simon Young, a legal professor at the University of Hong Kong, said that means a warrant for Snowden’s arrest could have been issued as early as June 14.

The office of Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive, declined to comment on Snowden’s case Saturday. The police department did not respond to calls and e-mails.

Meanwhile, plans to protect Snowden appeared to be unfolding. Olafur Sigurvinsson, an Icelandic businessman, told reporters Thursday that he has a private jet ready to take Snowden to Iceland, a potential safe haven named by Snowden in interviews.

A spokesperson representing the Hong Kong Aviation Center, which handles private jet flights out of Hong Kong, did not comment on whether Snowden, or anyone on his behalf, had made plans to fly out.

“For privacy reason [sic], we do not disclose to external parties the identity of our passengers or information about their flight arrangement,” KK Yuen said in an e-mail.

Yuen also said that all passengers must go through immigration and customs checks. In other words, Snowden could have trouble leaving on a private jet without tipping off authorities.

A potentially drawn-out and complex legal process awaits the former contractor, who turned 30 on Friday, and the U.S. officials trying to remove him from Hong Kong.

If Snowden is arrested, he must be brought “as soon as practicable” before a Hong Kong judge, according to the extradition treaty. That judge will then decide whether he should be removed from Hong Kong under the terms of the treaty.

Among other things, the treaty requires that any criminal charges filed against Snowden must be both listed in the treaty and involve an offense that could land him in prison for more than a year in both the United States and Hong Kong.

Young, the legal expert, said that while the crime of theft clearly passed that test, the two communication-related charges “will likely attract litigation and dispute in the courts.” Those two charges are not listed explicitly in the treaty, although “offences involving the unlawful use of computers” is included, something U.S. officials may use in their legal arguments.

Snowden can challenge any initial ruling to extradite him all the way to Hong Kong’s highest court, a process that could take months to run its course.

In addition, he can submit an application for asylum to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in Hong Kong, which processes most asylum claims in the city. An enormous backlog means an application from Snowden could take months or even years to clear. Under Hong Kong law, the government would not be able to extradite him until his asylum request was processed.

UNHCR did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.

Regina Ip, a Hong Kong legislator and former security secretary, said Snowden will have plenty of defenders if he is arrested.

“I think if he stays in Hong Kong, there will be no lack of human-rights lawyers who are happy to help him,” she said Saturday.

Last weekend, 200 to 300 protesters marched by the U.S. Consulate to support Snowden, applauding his release of classified documents showing secret surveillance operations by the United States.

Hong Kong is in an unusual position in the matter, in that it has an independent legal system but must ultimately answer to mainland Chinese leadership in Beijing.

Snowden’s story has occasionally made the headlines in China, where some of his critiques of the U.S. government echo allegations by China’s leadership that the United States points fingers at other countries even as it violates civil liberties itself.

On Saturday, some Chinese netizens praised Snowden on hearing the news that criminal charges had been filed against him. Others expressed doubt that he would receive a fair trial in the United States.

“I reckon it will be a secret trial . . . or just no trial,” wrote a used named Xiaolai on the Twitter-like microblog weibo.

Said another user, Kingbo Lee: “Snowden is a hero, a hero of the world’s people. Foreign countries must offer political asylum and support Snowden.”

Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

Jia Lynn Yang is a staff writer at The Washington Post who covers policy and business. Before joining the Post, she worked at Fortune magazine.
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