The Guardian has a video “presenting two expert views on Edward Snowden’s decision to seek refuge in Hong Kong and the likelihood or not of his finding such refuge there.”
Timothy B. Lee notes: If Snowden had chosen to stay in the United States, he would have faced a stark choice: accept a multi-year prison sentence for actions he believed to be in the public interest or go to trial and risk decades in prison if the courts were not persuaded by his legal and constitutional arguments. The American activist Aaron Swartz was facing exactly that choice when he committed suicide in January.
Because of the government’s misconduct in the Ellsberg case, the courts never reached the legal and constitutional merits of prosecuting a whistleblower under the Espionage Act. But as he was going to trial, he would have had reason to be optimistic that the courts would see things his way. The Supreme Court had declared warrantless wiretapping unconstitutional in 1967 and refused to block publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
The current Supreme Court is less sympathetic to civil liberties. For example, earlier this year, the justices threw out a constitutional challenge to the FISA Amendments Act because the plaintiffs could not prove that they had personally been targets of surveillance. Because of the documents Snowden released, we now know that the FISA Amendments Act is the basis for the NSA’s PRISM program.
Julian Borger reports: Just before sovereignty over Hong Kong passed from Britain to China in 1997, the US signed a new extradition treaty with the semi-autonomous territory. Under that treaty, both parties agree to hand over fugitives from each other’s criminal justice systems, but either side has the right of refusal in the case of political offences.
Beijing, which gave its consent for Hong Kong to sign the agreement, also has a right of veto if it believes the surrender of a fugitive would harm the “defence, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy” of the People’s Republic of China. In short, the treaty makes Snowden’s fate a matter of political expediency not just in Hong Kong but in Beijing.
In his Guardian interview, Snowden denied that his decision to fly to Hong Kong to make his allegations on NSA intrusion and infringement of American civil liberties was intended as a vote of confidence in Chinese human rights. But he noted that the people of Hong Kong have “a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”.
Certainly in comparison with mainland China, Hong Kong is an island of press freedom and political tolerance. When the UK ended 156 years of colonial rule and Hong Kong became China’s first ‘special administrative region’, it was given special status under the principle of “one country, two systems”. Most importantly, Hong Kong passed its own constitution, its Basic Law, giving it a “high degree of autonomy” on all issues except foreign relations and defence.