Where can an American go to avoid being extradited back to the US?

The source of a recently leaked US electronic surveillance program, Edward Snowden has apparently gone underground, leading some to speculate as to his next move. Whether he decides to seek asylum elsewhere will likely hinge on the country’s tradition of extradition to the US. Here are six places that have proven that extradition for an American is hard to do.

1.Britain

Neither their special relationship nor an extradition treaty that the US and Britain signed in 2003 has made extradition easy for the US. Between 2004 and 2012, out of the 134 extradition requests the US made, Britain only allowed 75 extraditions to the states.

Take for example the case of Gary McKinnon, a British hacker diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Mr. McKinnon broke into almost 100 NASA and US military computers over the course of two years. In 2012, the US issued an extradition request for him to be tried for computer fraud, only to be denied by British Home Secretary Theresa May. Her reason: Because of his diagnosed Asperger's and other illnesses, extraditing McKinnon “would be incompatible with [his] human rights.”

Hackers aren’t the only ones who have found legal shelter in Britain however. It took eight years to extradite radical Islamist preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri to the US for conspiring to train terrorists in Oregon and for kidnapping Americans in Yemen. Once again, human rights concerns stood in the way. Mr. al-Masri made appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, which has jurisdiction over 47 countries, to deny the extradition request on the grounds that facing prison time in the US would be a violation of his human rights.

2.France

 Nationalist French politician Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front Party, called on France to offer Snowden asylum. The extradition process is notoriously arduous in France. Consider the Roman Polanski saga: Mr. Polanski, the famous film director whose credits include “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” fled the US in 1977 after pleading guilty to statutory rape of a 13-year old girl. The French-Polish national has since been residing in France. He last made headlines when Swiss authorities briefly put him under house arrest in 2010 while traveling to accept a film award there. They considered extraditing him, however, released him soon after. He then returned to France.

Polanski’s case is a bit different from Snowden’s. Polanski is a French citizen, Snowden is a US citizen. France and the US do have an extradition treaty, and it is Polanski’s French citizenship that seems to be the only thing keeping him secure (France does not extradite its own citizens).  

But Snowden may still have a chance, or at least buy some time in France. It took 25 years for US citizen Ira Einhorn’s eventual extradition in 2001, following the murder of his girlfriend.

And if he can prove imprisonment in the US would seriously compromise his health, Snowden might be set here. This route has been taken before, most recently in February 2013, when a French court denied the extradition of Michael and Linda Mastro unless US authorities promised not to imprison them, as their doctors said they suffered from health problems.

3.Hong Kong

The Hong Kong skyline is seen from the Peak tourist spot, in June 2008. (Victor Fraile/Reuters/File)

 Snowden may just decide to stay put, which may very well be his best option. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, Hong Kong wasn't the worst choice for hiding out:

If Snowden chooses to ask for political asylum, says Professor [Simon] Young, head of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at Hong Kong University, “he is going nowhere” in the foreseeable future. A recent appeals court ruling, he explains, means that “the government cannot return anyone who claims that he will be persecuted” in the country he came from.

Though technically under the sovereignty of China, Hong Kong is still quite autonomous, and according to Article 6 of the extradition treaty it signed with the US in 1996, fugitives will not be extradited if the crimes they are accused of are political. If Snowden plays the political dissident card right, he may be able to call Hong Kong his new home.

Russia

In an ironic turn of events, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov announced that Russia – with its own history of persecuting whistleblowers – would consider granting asylum to Snowden. Russia has been making a name for itself by denying extradition requests. This lack of cooperation stems, in part, from the fact that they have not signed a bilateral extradition treaty with the US, and that the Russian Constitution forbids extraditing nationals to foreign countries. This most recently came up during discussions of extraditing Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, mother of the alleged Boston bombers.

If Snowden requests it, Russia might welcome him with open arms and maybe even give him the Depardieu treatment. While fleeing allegations of tax evasion, President Vladimir Putin personally granted Gerard Depardieu, the prolific and outspoken French actor, Russian citizenship and protection from his pursuers. But it is unclear whether Snowden, with his much-touted ideals, would accept sanctuary in a country notorious for its treatment of political dissidents.

Ecuador

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange speaking from the balcony of Ecuador's embassy in London, August 19, 2012. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

In spite of having signed bilateral extradition treaties with the US, first in 1872 and again in 1939, the bizarre case of Julian Assange seems to show that the political will to hand over whistleblowers is low in the small South American country.

In 2012, while Britain was seeking to extradite Mr. Assange to Sweden to face criminal trials, the now infamous whistleblower found refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy there. Assange sought asylum in the embassy for fear that extradition to Sweden or staying in Britain would lead him into the hands of US officials, putting his life or human rights in danger, he said. Despite pledges from both the British and Swedish governments that this would not happen, Ecuador granted Assange political asylum.

Assange is not the only dissident to seek refuge in Ecuador. Later that year, Belarusian Aliaksandr Barankov was released from prison after an Ecuadorian judge decided that his request for asylum was justified. Mr. Barankov had fled Belarus after uncovering an oil smuggling ring with connections to President Alexander Lukashenko. Considering this track record, Snowden may be safe there from extradition should the US request it.

Iceland

When Snowden came forward, he named Iceland as a possible haven should the US government try to extradite him. Indeed, some Icelanders would welcome him gladly.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a member of Iceland’s parliament, issued a statement expressing her interest in helping Snowden.

The bad news for Snowden is that Ms. Jónsdóttir is a member of the opposition Pirate Party, which champions media freedoms, but that only has a handful of seats in an otherwise conservative government. Moreover, in order to seek asylum, Snowden would have to start the application in Iceland, which is not easy to get to from Hong Kong without stopping somewhere else along the way.

And though Jónsdóttir and others say they would want to honor Iceland’s history of protecting dissidents such as Wikileaks and Bobby Fischer, others in Iceland might not want to run the risk of angering the US, Iceland’s largest trading partner.