So it begins. This from ArsTechnica (full article here
On Friday, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was formally charged by the United States government with espionage, theft, and conversion of government property in a sealed criminal complaint in the Eastern District Court of Virginia. According to the Washington Post citing anonymous sources, the United States has also asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a “provisional arrest warrant.”
Some Hong Kong legal watchers though, have wondered if Snowden’s fleeing to Hong Kong was a better choice than it might seem at first blush. Apparently, the High Court in the quasi-city-state has issued an order requiring the government to create a new procedure to consider asylum applications. Until such a procedure is achieved, asylum seekers can ostensibly stay indefinitely.
"If it comes to the point where the US does issue a warrant on Snowden, and then passes it over to the Hong Kong authorities, and he decides to fight it, at this point it would be a court case," Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch told GlobalPost earlier this month. "And it can be a long court case, going up to the court of final appeals."
Lawyers who spoke to the Post concurred. "Any court battle is likely to reach Hong Kong’s highest court and could last many months," noted the Post. Hong Kong also has a clause in its extradition treaty with the US which states that suspects can't be turned over for offenses with a "political character." Espionage has traditionally been treated as such an offense.
Be very interesting to see how this plays out since politics and economic considerations will no doubt play heavily into this case.
Snowden's ultimate disposition could very easily (and likely will) become a bargaining chip in a larger set of negotiations over state-sponsored cyberhacking "understandings" and economic treaties.
In some respects, Snowden was wise to opt for Hong Kong and not go to Iceland since it would be considerably easier (and of far less political consequence) for him to be forcibly "extracted" (i.e. kidnapped) from Reykjavík than it would Hong Kong or Bejing. Iceland has little the United States wants. And much of Northern Europe is already playing ball with Washington over going after file sharing sites, blocking Pirate Bay, and conducting aggressive police enforcement actions over IP claims.
In the end, I think it's going to come down to a question incentives
and the appearance of independence
Hong Kong will not
want to appear to be dancing to Washington's tune. But there may be some carrots (trade treaties, lifting of certain import restrictions, more liberal labor offshoring or tech import rules, etc.) that could be dangled as an enticement for Hong Kong's courts to find an argument for why Snowden should be returned.
Who knows? Maybe China has a few spies of it's own in US custody they would like to get back. Prisoner exchanges are not unusual in that context.
Washington really can't lose at this point. Whatever damage Snowden may or may not have caused - it's done already. It works out for Washington either way. If the US gets him back, they'll try him. If they don't, he'll be made the next Edward Lee Howard and become the 'poster child' justification for even more intrusive laws to protect national security. Because if
political asylum is ultimately granted, that will only serve as 'proof' in some quarters that Snowden was
working as a spy for China all along.
Since there's little practical upside (other than showing China won't be bullied) for keeping Snowden, I'm fairly certain he will ultimately be handed back to the USA at some point to face charges. Whether he is officially handed over by Hong Kong as part of a court judgment or brokered deal - or he just blacks out one fine morning and wakes up in some secret detention center half a world away - makes little difference. In the long run, he's had it.
major government can afford to tolerate somebody they want be allowed to remain at large if that person's location is known. It's simply too embarrassing.