Charges include theft of government property and unauthorised communication of national defence information
A woman walks past a banner supporting Edward Snowden in Hong Kong. Photograph: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
The US has filed espionage charges against the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and reports say authorities have requested that Hong Kong detain him for extradition. Legislators in Hong Kong responded by calling for mainland China to intervene in the case.
Snowden, 29, is charged with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorised person, according to court documents.
Snowden is reported to be in hiding in Hong Kong. The Washington Post said the US had asked the autonomous Chinese territory to detain the former NSA contractor on a provisional arrest warrent, while other reports cited US officials as saying preparations were being made to seek his extradition.
One Hong Kong legislator, Leung Kwok-hung, said Beijing should instruct Hong Kong to protect Snowden from extradition before the case was dragged through the court system. Leung also urged the people of Hong Kong to “take to the streets to protect Snowden”. Another lawmaker, Cyd Ho, vice-chair of the pro-democracy Labour party, said China “should now make its stance clear to the Hong Kong SAR [special administrative region] government”.
US prosecutors have 60 days to file an indictment and can then take steps to secure Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong for a criminal trial in the US. Snowden would be able to challenge the request for his extradition in court in Hong Kong.
The US extradition treaty with Hong Kong has an exception for political offences, which might include espionage.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic businessman linked to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, said on Thursday he had readied a private plane in China to fly Snowden to Iceland if Iceland‘s government would grant asylum. Iceland refused on Friday to say whether it would grant asylum to Snowden.
The complaint against Snowden was filed at the federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia where Snowden’s former employer, government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, is headquartered. The complaint is dated 14 June, five days after Snowden was first revealed as the leaker.
The US and Hong Kong have a standing agreement on the surrender of fugitives. However, Snowden’s appeal rights could drag out any extradition proceeding. The success or failure also depends on what the suspect is charged with under US law and how it corresponds to Hong Kong law. In order for Hong Kong officials to honour the extradition request they have to have some applicable statute under their law that corresponds with a violation of US law.
Advocacy organisation the Government Accountability Project said Snowden should be shielded from prosecution by whistleblower protection laws. “He disclosed information about a secret programme that he reasonably believed to be illegal, and his actions alone brought about the long-overdue national debate about the proper balance between privacy and civil liberties, on the one hand, and national security on the other,” the group said in a statement.