Since leaking NSA documents to The Guardian, Edward Snowden has been hiding out in a hotel in Hong Kong, a city he chose because it supposedly has "a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent."
Several critics have been quick to note that Hong Kong is not nearly as free as Snowden claims. Hong Kong — which China gained sovereignty over in 1997 — is, along with Macau, a "special administrative region" that has a fair amount of autonomy from mainland China. But Beijing still has plenty of power in Hong Kong, Evan Osnos pointed out in The New Yorker:
Going to Hong Kong out of devotion to free speech is a bit like going to Tibet out of a devotion to Buddhism; the people love it, though they live under authorities who intervene when they choose.
The Beijing government has veto power when "defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy" is on the line, and while it might prefer to avoid openly meddling in a case that would inflame Hong Kong's local sensibilities, it can make its preferences felt, and it has little incentive to protect Snowden from his own government. [The New Yorker]
So is Hong Kong really the safest place for Snowden? Probably not.
The city does maintain its own extradition treaty with the United States, allowing each party to deny an extradition request if the fugitive is accused of an "offence of a political character." The problem for Snowden is that the treaty's definition of a political crime is vague. A judge, facing great pressure from the United States and China, could deem this a normal criminal prosecution, in which case Snowden would be out of luck.
"Obviously, he's in a better position than if he had committed murder, but [the legal strategy] is not necessarily a winner for him," Julian Ku, professor of international law at Hofstra University, told Foreign Policy.
If Snowden is taken into custody, Hong Kong officials could hold Snowden for 60 days while the United States draws up a formal extradition request.
Beijing could also keep Snowden for its own intelligence purposes, but doing so right after Chinese president Xi Jinping spent the weekend in California trying to build trust with President Obama would be awkward to say the least.
Without intervention from the mainland, Hong Kong courts would likely decide Snowden's fate — and they regularly extradite criminals back to the United States.
"Hong Kong is the worst place in the world for any person to avoid extradition, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom," a lawyer who has handled extradition cases in Hong Kong told The Wall Street Journal.
It is unclear why Snowden went to Hong Kong instead of a country like Iceland, where an MP recently declared he would move to give Snowden asylum.
No charges have been filed against Snowden yet, but some Republicans in Congress are already calling for his extradition.
"If Edward Snowden did in fact leak the NSA data as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said in a statement. "The United States must make it clear that no country should be granting this individual asylum. This is a matter of extraordinary consequence to American intelligence."
Snowden told The Guardian that he expects the U.S. government to say he has "broken the Espionage Act and helped our enemies" by revealing details of the NSA's phone-records grab and gathering of data from several large internet companies.
Snowden has good reason to be afraid. Bradley Manning, the soldier who leaked classified military documents to WikiLeaks in 2010, is in court facing those exact charges — and might get a life sentence if he's judged guilty.
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