Experts said Monday that any attempt to extradite the man who says he leaked details about the U.S. government's secret monitoring of phone calls and Internet use from Hong Kong could be long and complicated.
The U.S. and Hong Kong signed an extradition treaty in 1996, just before the British handed over control of the territory to China, in which both parties agreed to hand over fugitives. While Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous Chinese territory, Beijing can veto extraditions if it believes returning a suspect to a foreign country would impinge on its "essential public interest or policy."
Edward Snowden, who says he worked as a contractor for the highly secretive National Security Agency in the United States, said he disclosed the country's surveillance programs because he grew increasingly concerned about the extent of the monitoring. He had taken up residence in a Hong Kong hotel, and on Sunday he urged two newspapers he had leaked information to, Britain's Guardian and The Washington Post, to disclose his identity.
A New York lawyer who has handled international extradition cases, Robert Anello, told VOA that any extradition of Snowden could take years, and be a complicated decision for China.
“Whether or not they would decide to override it and keep him is a political issue that would be a very involved decision. I mean, given China’s relationship with the U.S., which at least appears to be relatively good these days, one might argue against it. On the other hand, if his computer is full of important information that would be of interest to a foreign government, they would have an interest in overriding it and maintaining him there," said Anello/
Ultimately, Anello said he thinks "the odds are very substantial" that the United States will be able to extradite Snowden.
Snowden told the Guardian he went to Hong Kong because it "has a strong tradition of free speech."
The Hong Kong government said only that it would abide by its laws, and could not comment on individual cases. U.S. authorities say they are in the initial stages of investigating the leaks, and no formal criminal charges have been filed.
One Hong Kong legal expert, Ronny Tong, said he is not certain that even if the U.S. charges Snowden with offenses related to his acknowledged leak of the documents to the two newspapers it would lead to his extradition.
"If he is being indicted for the crime of espionage in United States, again I am not sure that that would suffice in Hong Kong, because in Hong Kong there is no law as yet which covers espionage or covers the leakage of national interest because we have failed in passing Article 23 legislation, which is the national security legislation in Hong Kong," said Tong.
Another expert, Shi Yinhong at the U.S. Research Center at Renmin University, questioned whether the Chinese government would want to approve Snowden's release to U.S. authorities.
"I also think that the Chinese government also will consider the indirect negative impact upon Chinese international prestige, because it's not in Chinese interest to help the U.S. government to take someone who has done nothing criminal against China, but maybe who will get some international sympathy," said Shi.
Snowden also expressed interest in seeking asylum in Iceland, but officials in the North Atlantic island nation said he would have to appear in person to seek asylum there.
In a lengthy interview with the Guardian, Snowden said his dismay grew over time at the extent of the U.S. surveillance of phone and Internet records. He said he believed that Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing were being targeted.
"Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded," said Snowden.