HONG KONG — Hong Kong was silent Saturday on whether a former National Security Agency contractor should be extradited to the United States now that he has been charged with espionage, but some local legislators said the Chinese government should decide.
Edward Snowden, believed to be holed up in Hong Kong, has admitted providing information to the news media about two highly classified NSA surveillance programs.
It is not known if the U.S. government has made a formal extradition request – a process that could take years, and the Hong Kong government had no immediate reaction to the charges against Snowden. Police Commissioner Andy Tsang told reporters only that the case would be dealt with according to the law. A police statement said it was "inappropriate" for the police to comment on the case.
When China regained control of Hong Kong in 1997, the former British colony was granted a high degree of autonomy and granted rights and freedoms not seen on mainland China. However, under the city's mini constitution Beijing is allowed to intervene in matters involving defense and diplomatic affairs.
Outspoken legislator Leung Kwok-hung said Beijing should instruct Hong Kong to protect Snowden from extradition before his case gets dragged through the court system. Leung also urged the people of Hong Kong to "take to the streets to protect Snowden."
Another legislator, Cyd Ho, vice-chairwoman of the pro-democracy Labour Party, said China "should now make its stance clear to the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) government" before the case goes before a court.
China has urged Washington to provide explanations following the disclosures of National Security Agency programs which collect millions of telephone records and track foreign Internet activity on U.S. networks, but it has not commented on Snowden's status in Hong Kong.
Another disclosure came late Saturday when the South China Morning Post reported on its website that Snowden claimed the NSA hacked Chinese cell phone companies to steal SMS data. The paper also said, without citing any source, that Snowden was "safe" in Hong Kong and not in police custody.
Snowden claimed to have supporting documents of the text-message hacking, the paper said, though its report did not explain his alleged evidence. He spoke to the paper in a June 12 interview.
A formal extradition request to Hong Kong could drag through appeal courts for years and would pit Beijing against Washington at a time China tries to deflect U.S. accusations that it carries out extensive surveillance on American government and commercial operations.
Snowden told the Post in the same interview that he hoped to stay in the autonomous region of China because he has faith in "the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate."
A prominent former politician in Hong Kong, Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said he doubted whether Beijing would intervene yet.
"Beijing would only intervene according to my understanding at the last stage. If the magistrate said there is enough to extradite, then Mr. Snowden can then appeal," he said.
Lee said Beijing could then decide at the end of the appeal process if it wanted Snowden extradited or not.
The criminal complaint unsealed Friday in a U.S. federal court alleged Snowden engaged in two violations of the Espionage Act and committed theft of government property. All three crimes carry a maximum 10-year prison term.
If formal extradition is pursued, Snowden could contest it on grounds of political persecution.
Hong Kong lawyer Mark Sutherland said that the filing of a refugee, torture or inhuman punishment claim acts as an automatic bar on any extradition proceedings until those claims can be assessed.
"Some asylum seekers came to Hong Kong 10 years ago and still haven't had their protection claims assessed," Sutherland said.