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Snowden’s Flight Raises Legal Questions for Hong Kong

  • Ivan Broadhead

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying speaks during a news conference following his maiden policy address in Hong Kong, January 16, 2013 file photo.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying speaks during a news conference following his maiden policy address in Hong Kong, January 16, 2013 file photo.

The Hong Kong government says former security contractor Edward Snowden departed the semi-autonomous Chinese city just hours after the U.S. government requested his extradition. Questions are raised about Snowden’s flight.

After a day of media speculation and government silence, Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying confirmed Edward Snowden left the southern Chinese city of his own accord early Sunday for a third-party country.

Snowden, who is under FBI investigation for revealing secret U.S. National Security Agency surveillance operations, had been in hiding in Hong Kong since fleeing Hawaii May 20.

Edward Snowden during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong, June 6, 2013.

Edward Snowden during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong, June 6, 2013.

Despite the extradition agreement between Hong Kong and Washington, Leung said Snowden departed “through a lawful and normal channel," and the United States had been informed.

Speaking to local public broadcaster RTHK, Hong Kong University Law Professor Eric Cheung questioned the legality of Snowden’s free passage.

“The Hong Kong government needs to explain to the U.S. why it allowed Snowden to leave, not withstanding their surrender request," he said. "Hong Kong needs to give a satisfactory explanation, otherwise the [United] States might accuse Hong Kong of being in breach of its treaty obligations.”

China political expert Willy Lam suggests Snowden's presence has been a headache for the local government, which answers to Beijing but has close ties to Washington.

“I would not be surprised if Snowden was encouraged to leave so Hong Kong would be spared a potentially acrimonious legal battle with the United States, if, as is highly possible, it was the intention of the Chinese government not to surrender him,” said Lam.

Snowden boarded an Aeroflot flight to Moscow. Reports suggest he will subsequently travel to Venezuela by way of Cuba.

Explaining why Hong Kong authorities had not prevented the fugitive’s departure, Leung said the U.S. government provided insufficient information to process an arrest warrant.

Hong Kong Democratic Party chairman Emily Lau is skeptical. She suspects Leung was acting at Beijing’s behest, and is concerned about the ramifications for Hong Kong citizens.

“The fact CY Leung dare not say anything for so long shows that he was waiting for orders from Beijing," she said. "The Americans may want to punish us [for instance, by] by not giving us visa-free treatment that is something Hong Kong has been fighting for.”

U.S. officials say National Security Agency computer and telephone monitoring operations have foiled at least 50 terrorist plots.

Leung concluded his statement by demanding Washington clarify Snowden’s allegation that Hong Kong computer systems have been hacked by U.S. agencies.

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