BEIJING -- Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old contractor identified as the source of leaks about the U.S. electronic surveillance program, apparently checked out of his Hong Kong hotel at midday Monday, his destination and whereabouts unknown.
"We know he was here until today," said Cosmo Beatson, a Hong Kong-based refugee activist who heads an organization called Vision First.
Beatson said Monday night it is possible that Snowden boarded a plane from Hong Kong -- since there is no warrant for his arrest -- or was smuggled onto one of the many illegal speedboats smuggling people and goods between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong. “He’s very mobile.”
Britain's Guardian newspaper videotaped an interview with Snowden at the Hong Kong hotel, and posted it on Sunday. Since then, Snowden may have discovered that Hong Kong’s unique geopolitics made it a poor choice for seeking asylum.
Unlike China, the semiautonomous territory of Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the United States that has been in place since January 1998. Although the treaty gives Beijing the right to veto an extradition on national security grounds, experts do not expect the Chinese government will want to confront Washington on Snowden’s behalf.
Neither the Hong Kong nor Chinese governments has made a formal comment about Snowden. But Regina Ip, a Hong Kong lawmaker and former security chief considered close to Beijing, told reporters Monday that the territory would be “obliged to comply with the terms of agreements” with the U.S. government.
"It's actually in his best interest to leave Hong Kong," she was quoted telling Singapore-based Channel News Asia.
In his interviews with the Guardian, Snowden said that he had chosen Hong Kong for its reputation as a bastion of free speech and human rights.
"Mainland China does have significant restrictions on free speech, but the people of Hong Kong have a long tradition of protesting in the streets, or making their views known," said Snowden in the videotaped interview. "The Hong Kong government is actually independent in relation to a lot of other Western governments."
The videotaped interview sent Hong Kong-based reporters scouring the city’s hotels, analyzing the curtains and lamps that appeared in the backdrop. In the video, Snowden said he was down the street from the U.S. consulate, but that appeared to be a red herring: the $200-a-night Hotel Mira across the harbor in Kowloon later confirmed that Snowden had been registered until Monday under his own name.
There have been several high-profile cases in which suspects have been extradited from Hong Kong, although in more conventional criminal disputes. A man later convicted of raping his daughter was returned to the U.S. in 2007; Albert Hu, a Silicon Valley hedge fund manager, was returned in 2009 to stand trial for allegedly defrauding investors.
U.S. citizens can enter Hong Kong without a visa, but are usually given stays of only 90 days. After that, Snowden would face deportation or extradition.
Despite the handover to China in 1997, the former British colony still follows a common-law tradition system modeled on the United Kingdom's. It does not extradite in death penalty cases unless capital punishment is waived.
"There are very strong guarantees of political and civil freedoms in Hong Kong, but there is a limit to its autonomy under the 'one country two systems' model, especially with respect to national defense and security," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a signatory to a 1992 U.N. convention that allows people subject to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment to apply for asylum. But according to Beatson, only four out of 12,500 claimants have been approved.
"This is a terrible place to seek asylum. Nobody really seeks Hong Kong as a destination. Usually they are on their way somewhere else," Beatson said.
Among Snowden’s options would be to flee to Iceland, where he has supporters, or to Ecuador, whose embassy in London is sheltering Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
In the video, Snowden didn’t directly answer a question about whether he was trying to defect to China, although some Chinese are suggesting as much, if only to give the United States its comeuppance.
"Snowden is a real human rights activist! He is now in China’s territory, we must protect him. We should contribute to the world's human rights by resisting the pressure from the U.S.," wrote Wang Xiaodong, a Chinese writer and nationalist scholar.
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