HONG KONG - Hong Kong authorities have rejected asylum requests from a group of refugees who sheltered Edward Snowden four years ago, in what their lawyer said is retaliation for helping the former NSA contractor.
Immigration officials in the southern Chinese city denied the applications by the four adults and three children from Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Robert Tibbo said Monday.
Snowden hid out in Hong Kong for two weeks in June 2013 after he leaked documents revealing extensive U.S. government surveillance.
His whereabouts were a mystery during that time and it was not until last year that the role Tibbo and his clients played in sheltering Snowden was revealed.
Tibbo said his clients will appeal the ruling, which leaves them at risk of being detained or deported to their home countries. They have also applied for refugee status in Canada.
He said he represents 50 to 60 other clients who are applying for asylum in Hong Kong, where cases typically take years to be processed. But so far only these cases have received a speedy decision from immigration officials - issued last Thursday - in a sign they have been targeted by authorities, Tibbo said.
The Hong Kong government "has repeatedly tried to question the four adults about their involvement with Mr. Snowden. For example, about how long had Mr. Snowden been staying with them, what was Mr. Snowden's movement in the territory, which is irrelevant to the (asylum) claims," he said.
Tibbo said that when they refused to answer the questions, their social assistance payments for rent and food were cut off.
The group includes Ajith Pushpakumara, a former Sri Lankan soldier; Vanessa Mae Rodel, who is from the Philippines and has a 5-year-old daughter; and a Sri Lankan couple, Supun Thilina Kellapatha and Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis, and their two children.
Tibbo decided to go public with their identities last year after learning that movie director Oliver Stone had found out about them and would incorporate their role into his film on Snowden, released in October. The three families, who didn't realize they were harboring one of the world's most wanted figures at the time, said they feared being sent back.
"I'm an army deserter person," said Ajith, adding that if he returned to Sri Lanka, "I will be tortured again. I don't want to be tortured."
The Hong Kong government said in a statement that asylum claims are handled in a "fair, impartial and efficient manner," and that it found "no substantial grounds for believing that the claimants, if returned to their country of origin, will be subject to real and substantial risk of danger."
Rodel said she had no regrets helping Snowden, who gave her a hug when he left her tiny apartment four years ago.
"This guy is the most wanted man in the world and he had a big hug with me," Rodel said. "I am very proud of that."