Hong Kong Authorities Silent as Snowden Charges Filed

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Kin Cheung / AP

People walk past a banner supporting Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, at Central, Hong Kong's business district, June 17, 2013

The fate of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden hangs in the balance after the U.S. Justice Department formally issued charges for espionage and theft of government property. The Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong, where the 30-year-old is thought to be in hiding, has said that he is currently under police protection at a safe house in the city. However, local authorities would not comment on his whereabouts. Snowden is widely expected to fight extradition.

The former CIA employee and contractor for the National Security Agency revealed large-scale surveillance of Internet user data by the U.S. government to the Guardian and Washington Post. A criminal complaint was issued on Friday at federal court in Alexandria, Va., where Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, has its headquarters. He is accused of engaging in unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence — both crimes under the Espionage Act — as well as theft of government property. All three carry a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment.

(MORE: Snowden in Hong Kong: The Legal Complications of ‘One Country, Two Systems’)

Snowden fled to Hong Kong on May 20 praising the Chinese Special Administrative Region’s “strong tradition of free speech,” but it remained a curious choice to many. Hong Kong and U.S. maintain an extradition treaty and American officials have asked for Snowden to be detained while a surrender request is prepared. “I don’t think Mr. Snowden did his research properly before he came to Hong Kong,” Law Yuk-Kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, tells TIME.

Any attempt to fight extradition would revolve around showing that the charges are politically motivated, or demonstrating that Snowden faces torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment if returned to the U.S.. The fate of leaker Bradley Mannings, who spent much of his three years of pre-trial imprisonment in solitary confinement, may be used by Snowden to demonstrate that such a threat exists. In turn, the U.S. could argue that Manning was a member of the armed forces and that a civilian such as Snowden would be handled differently. At the same time, Hong Kong’s asylum procedures are currently being overhauled, so any legal wrangle could take years.

Snowden has been attempting to buoy local support since disappearing from a hotel on the Kowloon peninsula on June 10, surfacing briefly for a live webchat for the Guardian and an interview with the South China Morning Post, during which he said that he wanted “the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate” and that he had “no reason to doubt your system.” Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets last Saturday to pledge support for Snowden’s cause.

But while his fate ostensibly lies with Hong Kong’s courts, which maintain significant autonomy under the “one-country, two-systems” policy, many here worry about the possibility of Beijing’s involvement. “I think Hong Kong would use a liberal interpretation of the law unless China gets involved,” says Law, noting that Beijing could intercede “at any time” if the case is deemed one of national security or foreign affairs. Charges of espionage and theft of state secrets are not specifically cited in the treaty between Hong Kong and the U.S., though equivalent charges could be issued against Snowden under Hong Kong’s Official Secrets Ordinance—if, for instance, any of the information leaked was gathered by Hong Kong or China.

(MOREEdward Snowden, NSA Whistle-Blower, Wins Unusual Sympathizers in Latin America)

Snowden initially expressed interest in seeking sanctuary in Iceland as the country has long been lauded as a bastion of web freedom; whistleblower website WikiLeaks is based there and informal talks have reportedly taken place between government officials regarding Snowden’s case. An Icelandic businessman even claimed Friday that there were arrangements to allow Snowden to abscond from Hong Kong by private jet. “We are on standby, and if something happens we can move fast,” Olafur Sigurvinsson told the Wall Street Journal. But whether Hong Kong aviation authorities would permit Snowden onto any passenger list is doubtful.

The affair has proved embarrassing for Western governments. Snowden revealed himself just after Chinese President Xi Jinping met his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama earlier this month. Their talks in California were dominated by allegations of Chinese spying on the U.S., and the revelations hours later that the White House had apparently sanctioned comparable surveillance were met with cries of hypocrisy in China. Then fresh allegations emerged that U.K. intelligence services spied on foreign politicians and officials during two G20 summit meetings in London in 2009. Even as the Snowden case continues to develop, there appear to be many more damaging revelations in the pipeline.

MORE: In Hong Kong, Snowden Supporters Take to the Streeets