Edward Snowden, the American who leaked details of top-secret US surveillance programmes and is believed to be in Hong Kong, is technically free to leave the China-ruled city at any time, local lawyers said on Wednesday, and one suggested he probably should.
Snowden has not been charged by the US government nor is he the subject of an extradition request. If Washington asks for his extradition, it will be decided in court, where Snowden could argue to stay, the experts said. But his best option may be to get out quickly, if he has not already done so, a lawyer said.
“If I was him, I’d be getting out of here and heading to a sympathetic jurisdiction as fast as possible and certainly before the US issues a request for extradition,” said barrister Kevin Egan, who has dealt with extradition cases in the city. “The attitude of the judiciary here seems to be if Uncle Sam wants you, Uncle Sam will get you.”
The big unknown in this case is China. Although it has a degree of autonomy, Hong Kong ultimately answers to Beijing and China could exercise its right to veto any ruling in a local court if the opportunity arose.
So far, there’s been no indication of any moves by Hong Kong law enforcement to approach or question Snowden, last known to have checked out of a luxury hotel in the city’s Kowloon district on Monday.
The Security Bureau declined comment, while the Hong Kong government has said generally it will act in accordance with the law. The Chinese government has not commented on the case. “In strictly legal terms he’s free to go, but government bodies can always find an excuse to temporize, or stop him,” said Jonathan Acton-Bond, a barrister who has dealt with high-profile extradition cases in Hong Kong.
The US Justice Department is in the initial stages of a criminal investigation into the revelations, officials in Washington have said.
The key to Snowden’s fate lies in the specific nature of any charges filed against him, if and when they are filed.