On a technicality, Hong Kong and China extradite themselves from Snowden

The case of NSA leaker Edward Snowden was one that neither Hong Kong nor Beijing wanted to get involved in. With a stalling maneuver, Hong Kong let Mr. Snowden flee US extradition.

Vincent Yu/AP
A giant screen at a Hong Kong shopping mall shows Edward Snowden, the former contractor accused of leaking information about NSA surveillance programs. He left Hong Kong on Sunday.

By allowing Edward Snowden to leave Hong Kong Sunday, hours after the United States sought to extradite him, the government there has rid itself – and Beijing – of an awkward diplomatic and legal problem.

Indeed there are strong suspicions in the former British colony that the Hong Kong authorities deliberately gave the fugitive NSA whistleblower time to get out.

The US extradition request, filed on Saturday, “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law,” the Hong Kong government said on Sunday, so it had asked Washington for “additional information.”

In the meantime, there was “no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong,” the statement added. On Sunday morning, Snowden boarded a plane bound for Moscow, accompanied by legal advisors from the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks according to a post on the group’s Twitter account.

His final destination was unclear.

“I suspect it was ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you’ve got 48 hours to get out of Dodge City’,” says Kevin Egan, a Hong Kong lawyer with experience of extradition cases. “When the government got the clarification it had sought, it might not have been able to let him go.”

“Snowden managed to get away because Hong Kong decided to stall,” adds Claudia Mo, a lawmaker with the pro-democracy Civic Party. “The matter was too tricky for Sino-American relations … so Beijing gave instructions he should be given time to leave.”

Snowden had said he planned to challenge any US extradition attempt in Hong Kong courts, declaring his faith in the city’s rule of law. But he faced the possibility of having to stay in jail throughout the court proceedings, which could have taken several years according to local lawyers.

His case was a thorny one for Beijing, anxious to improve relations with the United States and embarrassed by the US fugitive’s presence in Hong Kong, but unable to intervene openly in Hong Kong’s judicial process under the “one country, two systems” principle that safeguards Hong Kong’s courts.

Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had promised that the case would be handled “in accordance with the laws and established procedures of Hong Kong.” But the politically sensitive case “would have been quite a test for our rule of law,” says Ms. Mo. “It would have been a very thorny issue and it is all for the best for both Hong Kong and Beijing that he has gone.”

“This was not a case that Hong Kong or Beijing ever wanted to get involved in,” agrees Mr. Egan. “The best thing for both of them was for Snowden to leave.” 

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