NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden appears to have landed in Moscow after boarding a flight from Hong Kong early Sunday morning. A statement released Sunday by the Hong Kong government said that an extradition request received from the U.S. “did not fully comply” with local legal requirements — something that the U.S. denies. The Hong Kong authorities added that Snowden departed on his own accord through a “lawful and normal channel” and that clarification had been requested regarding the alleged hacking of local computer systems by U.S. government agencies. It is believed that Snowden will only stay in Russia briefly before flying to an as-yet-unknown third country. Whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks said in a statement that Snowden was “bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum” and that he was “being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.” It added that Snowden had requested that WikiLeaks “use its legal expertise and experience to secure his safety.”
A former CIA employee and contractor for the National Security Agency, Snowden came to the world’s attention when he revealed to the Guardian and Washington Post large-scale phone and Internet surveillance by the U.S. government. Formal charges were issued against him on Friday, his 30th birthday, for engaging in unauthorized communication of national-defense information, willful communication of classified communications intelligence and theft of government property. All three crimes carry a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.
Commentators were expecting a lengthy legal battle as Snowden had previously vowed to fight extradition proceedings from Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China known for its independent judiciary and a much higher degree of freedom than Beijing permits elsewhere in the country. He arrived in the city on May 20 after leaving his home and girlfriend in Hawaii. Though Hong Kong and the U.S. maintain an extradition treaty, Snowden might have claimed asylum by demonstrating that any charges against him were politically motivated, or that he would face torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment if he were returned to the U.S. But his desire for the “the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate,” as expressed during an interview with the South China Morning Post, may have waned during his time in the territory.
Snowden previously said that he might seek sanctuary in Iceland as the country has a reputation for free speech and Internet freedom (WikiLeaks is based there). However, Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency, citing an unidentified Aeroflot official, reported that Snowden would fly from Moscow to Havana on Monday before going on to Caracas. “I think Venezuela or any country without ties to the U.S. would be his best bet,” says Law Yuk-Kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. Venezuela has had fraught relations with the U.S., especially during the presidency of the late Hugo Chávez.
Ronny Tong, a Hong Kong barrister and legislator, tells TIME that Snowden was right to flee as legal proceedings can often yield unexpected results. “It’s a result of a political compromise,” he says. “I was half expecting this as I think that Beijing would find it embarrassing especially if he was surrendered to the United States,” adding that Snowden’s continued presence in Hong Kong would also spotlight mainland China’s own dubious record on human rights and privacy.
Hong Kong officials appear to have played it by the book by stressing the rule of law the territory is known for. However, by sidestepping a political hot potato, the territory risks the ire of the U.S. “As far as the relationship with Hong Kong goes, this raises questions,” a U.S. Justice Department official warned on Sunday. The Hong Kong government’s statement makes it plain that the feeling is mutual, with the authorities vowing to follow up on U.S. hacking allegations to “protect the rights of the people of Hong Kong.” As a result of the Snowden affair, governments and individuals everywhere are starting to realize that privacy is something that can no longer be taken for granted.