Monday, June 10, 2013


Hong Kong Seen as Likely to Extradite Leaker if U.S. Asks

HONG KONG — In choosing Hong Kong as an initial place to take refuge from the United States government, the National Security Agency contractor who has acknowledged leaking documents has selected a jurisdiction where it may be possible to delay extradition but not avoid it, legal and law enforcement experts here said.

The contractor, Edward J. Snowden, was apparently still in Hong Kong at 12:30 p.m. Monday. The Mira Hotel, an elegant boutique hotel on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbor, said Monday evening that he had stayed at the hotel but checked out at that time.

It was not clear whether Mr. Snowden remained in Hong Kong or left the territory, which is part of China but has a high degree of autonomy. The hotel gave no further information, and the Hong Kong government declined to discuss Mr. Snowden’s whereabouts, citing a policy of not commenting on individual cases.

“All cases will be handled in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong,” the government said in a brief statement.

The United States Consulate in Hong Kong referred questions to the Justice Department in Washington, which has said only that it is in the initial stages of an investigation into the release of information about government programs to monitor telephone and Internet communications.

The Obama administration has said the programs were focused on the communications of people who were not American citizens. But Mr. Snowden asserted in a video interview, released by the Guardian newspaper of Britain on Sunday, that the scale of the surveillance was much broader and involved the recording of a vast array of communications in the United States and elsewhere.

Hong Kong was a British colony before its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and it still follows the legal system it inherited from the British, with broad protections for civil liberties. Mr. Snowden told The Guardian that he had fled here because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.”

But Hong Kong won that reputation mainly as a place where Chinese political dissidents sought refuge from mainland authorities, not people sought by other governments. The Hong Kong authorities have worked closely with law enforcement agencies in the United States for years and have usually accepted requests for extradition under longstanding bilateral agreements, according to Regina Ip, a former secretary of security who is now a member of the territory’s legislature.

“He won’t find Hong Kong a safe harbor,” Ms. Ip said. “Those agreements have been enforced for more than 10 years. If the U.S. submits a request, we would act in accordance with the law.”

Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who is based in Hong Kong, wondered why Mr. Snowden would have considered the territory a good place to stay after he left Hawaii three weeks ago.

“If he took time to talk with a lawyer, he would have decided somewhere else was a better prospect” to avoid extradition, Mr. Bequelin said. “His explanation of his choice of Hong Kong was a bit off.”

The Hong Kong Police Force would not arrest him unless he broke a Hong Kong law or the United States issued an Interpol notice or sent a warrant, said Stephen Vickers, a former head of the force’s intelligence division who now runs his own risk consulting firm. But he said the police probably began monitoring Mr. Snowden as soon as word spread that he had taken responsibility for the leaks.

The Hong Kong authorities have generally been willing to extradite suspects when the United States sends a warrant, said Jonathan Acton-Bond, a barrister and former magistrate who has represented clients in some of the best-known extradition cases here.

Hong Kong enforces extradition laws more than other jurisdictions in Southeast Asia, Mr. Acton-Bond said. But Hong Kong did not follow Britain’s example after the Sept. 11 attacks of lowering the standard of legal evidence required before approving extradition to the United States. Hong Kong also has legal protections against politically motivated extradition cases, but they have seldom been invoked.

In the video interview with The Guardian, Mr. Snowden said he was considering seeking refuge in Iceland because of that country’s history of protecting Internet freedom. Hong Kong journalists identified the room where the video was recorded as being in the W hotel in Kowloon, near a station of the city’s airport express train. They found journalists for The Guardian checking out of that hotel at lunchtime on Monday.

Mr. Snowden referred in the video to a Central Intelligence Agency station as being “just up the road in the consulate here in Hong Kong” and pointed out the window, whose curtains were drawn. But the hotel is actually across the harbor from the consulate.

Mr. Snowden’s decision to go to Hong Kong introduces a potential complication in Chinese-American relations less than two days after President Obama and President Xi Jinping met in California for a series of wide-ranging discussions. Hong Kong is one of the largest hubs for China’s intelligence agencies, which are widely believed to occupy several floors of a black-glass building in the center of the city.

Mr. Snowden, a 29-year-old computer technician, has said that he had access to lists of all American agents overseas and other information, but that he did not take all of the data. The Washington Post has reported that he gave the newspaper 41 slides from a PowerPoint presentation. After discussing the national security implications of the material with American officials, the newspaper decided to publish only four of them.

While Mr. Snowden — or possibly his personal computer — might be a valuable prize for China’s intelligence agencies, experts were skeptical that China would risk harming relations with the United States by exercising its legal authority to block an extradition request from the Justice Department.

“I don’t think he’s a big enough fish that Beijing would try to intervene to affect the decision of the Hong Kong authorities one way or the other,” said Willy Lam, a specialist in Chinese government decision-making at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The most celebrated extradition case here in recent years involved two Pakistanis and an American who were accused of trying to exchange heroin and hashish for Stinger antiaircraft missiles in 2002. They were arrested by Hong Kong police officers working with undercover F.B.I. agents, who were pretending to be selling the missiles. The authorities said the men were planning to give the missiles to Al Qaeda.

The men initially fought extradition, but agreed to it after three months in a Hong Kong jail. Their lawyer, Mr. Acton-Bond, complained that they were kept in solitary confinement for 16 hours a day, housed separately in cells with no other Urdu speakers, and were “compelled to watch Chinese-language television.”

All three later pleaded guilty in a San Diego courtroom and received prison terms of up to 18 years.source

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