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.