HONG KONG — Hong Kong was silent Saturday on whether a former National Security Agency contractor should be extradited to the United States now that he has been charged with espionage, but some legislators said the decision should be up to the Chinese government.
Edward Snowden, believed to be holed up in Hong Kong, has admitted providing information to the news media about two highly classified NSA surveillance programs.
It is not known if the U.S. government has made a formal extradition request to Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong government had no immediate reaction to the charges against Snowden. Police Commissioner, Andy Tsang, when was asked about the development, told reporters only that the case would be dealt with according to the law. A police statement said it was "inappropriate" for the police to comment on the case.
When China regained control of Hong Kong in 1997, the former British colony was granted a high degree of autonomy and granted rights and freedoms not seen on mainland China. However, under the city's mini constitution Beijing is allowed to intervene in matters involving defense and diplomatic affairs.
Outspoken legislator Leung Kwok-hung said Beijing should instruct Hong Kong to protect Snowden from extradition before his case gets dragged through the court system. Leung also urged the people of Hong Kong to "take to the streets to protect Snowden."
Another legislator, Cyd Ho, vice-chairwoman of the pro-democracy Labour Party, said China "should now make its stance clear to the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) government" before the case goes before a court.
China has urged Washington to provide explanations following the disclosures of National Security Agency programs which collect millions of telephone records and track foreign Internet activity on U.S. networks, but it has not commented on Snowden's status in Hong Kong.
A formal extradition request, which could drag through appeal courts for years, would pit Beijing against Washington at a time China tries to deflect U.S. accusations that it carries out extensive surveillance on American government and commercial operations.
Snowden's whereabouts have not been publicly known since he checked out of a Hong Kong hotel on June 10. He said in an interview with the South China Morning Post that he hoped to stay in the autonomous region of China because he has faith in "the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate." Tsang said in interview broadcast on local television that he could not comment when asked about a local newspaper report that Snowden was in a police "safe house."
Snowden and his supporters have also spoken of his seeking asylum from Iceland.
A prominent former politician in Hong Kong, Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said he doubted whether Beijing would intervene at this stage.
"Beijing would only intervene according to my understanding at the last stage. If the magistrate said there is enough to extradite, then Mr. Snowden can then appeal," he said.
Lee said Beijing could then decide at the end of the appeal process if it wanted Snowden extradited or not.
A one-page criminal complaint unsealed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, said Snowden engaged in unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information. Both are charges under the Espionage Act. Snowden also is charged with theft of government property. All three crimes carry a maximum 10-year prison penalty.
The complaint will be an integral part of the U.S. government's effort to have Snowden extradited from Hong Kong, a process that could become a prolonged legal battle. Snowden could contest extradition on grounds of political persecution.
Hong Kong lawyer Mark Sutherland said that the filing of a refugee, torture or inhuman punishment claim acts as an automatic bar on any extradition proceedings until those claims can be assessed.
"Some asylum seekers came to Hong Kong 10 years ago and still haven't had their protection claims assessed," Sutherland said.
Organizers of a public protest in support of Snowden last week said Saturday that there were no plans for similar demonstrations this weekend.
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