Snowden, however, can fight the extradition effort in the courts in Hong Kong. Any battle is likely to reach Hong Kong’s highest court and could last many months, lawyers in the United States and Hong Kong said.
The United States has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and U.S. officials said cooperation with the Chinese territory, which enjoys some autonomy from Beijing, has been good in previous cases.
The treaty, however, has an exception for political offenses, and espionage has traditionally been treated as a political offense. Snowden’s defense team in Hong Kong is likely to invoke part of the extradition treaty with the United States, which states that suspects will not be turned over to face criminal trial for offenses of a “political character.”
Typically in such cases, Hong Kong’s chief executive must first decide whether to issue a warrant for the accused’s arrest. But the extradition treaty also says that in exceptional cases a provisional warrant can be issued by a Hong Kong judge without the chief executive’s approval. The judge must give the chief executive notice, however, that he has issued the warrant.
A spokesperson at the office of Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying said there was no information on Snowden’s case. The police department did not respond to calls or e-mails. At the police station for Central District in Hong Kong Island, police officers on duty said they had not heard anything about Snowden.
If Snowden is arrested, he would appear before a judge. Bail would be unlikely and, instead, Snowden would be sent to the Lai Chi Kok maximum-security facility in Kowloon, a short drive from the high-end Mira Hotel, where he is last known to have stayed in Hong Kong.
Snowden could also remain in Hong Kong if the Chinese government decides that it is not in the defense or foreign policy interests of the government in Beijing to have him sent back to the United States for trial.
Another option would be for Snowden to apply for asylum with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which handles most asylum requests in Hong Kong. The UNHCR was closed Saturday morning and did not immediately respond to requests for comment via e-mail and phone. The asylum application process can take months or even years because Hong Kong has a severe backlog. The Hong Kong government cannot formally surrender individuals until their asylum applications have been processed.
Snowden also could attempt to reach another jurisdiction and seek asylum there before the authorities in Hong Kong act.
Jia Lynn Yang in Hong Kong contributed to this report.