30-year-old American Edward Snowden, a contract employee at the National Security Agency, is the whistleblower behind significant revelations that surfaced in June 2013 about the US government's top secret, extensive domestic surveillance programmes. Snowden flew to Hong Kong from Hawaii in May 2013, and supplied confidential US government documents to media outlets including the Guardian.
Hong Kong's rule of law takes a front seat
There is little doubt that US authorities will file charges against American surveillance whistle-blower Edward Snowden and ask Hong Kong for his extradition. An investigation has been under way for some time and numerous counts, including leaking government classified information, are among the likely alleged crimes. These are serious accusations, but the high profile and politicisation of the case would seem to raise questions as to how authorities should respond. As complicated as matters may seem, though, that is not something we should be asking: at all times, no matter what the circumstances, we have to abide by the rule of law.
Snowden has put faith in the surrender agreement with the US and Fugitive Offenders' Ordinance, under which a person cannot be handed over if the offence they are accused of has a political character. But if Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying were to first decide he should return to the US, the courts are not involved. It will not be an easy decision given the deep divisions in society as to whether the former National Security Agency contractor should stay or go. Whatever is decided has to be in the best interests of Hong Kong.
Beijing, being responsible for our city's defence and foreign policy, also has a vested interest. It has the power to step in should the chief executive wish. But it is a sensitive matter, coming as it does in the wake of the first summit between presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama. The central government also has to take into account the nation's interests.
The integrity of our legal system is among the reasons Snowden decided to seek refuge in our city. As he told the South China Morning Post on Wednesday, he wanted Hong Kong's courts and its people to decide his fate. Given the anticipated pressures on our government from the US and the difficult position Beijing has been put in, his decision may not seem so wise. But with the world's media scrutinising every development, Hong Kong's reputation takes a front seat.
Snowden's cause is helped by our city being a major financial centre, gateway to mainland China, our closely-guarded free speech and culture of protest. Careful and deliberate consideration is necessary before his fate can be decided. The noise from his supporters, his objectors, agitators and those seeking political capital is already a distraction. Leung has to weigh our interests, local and national, when the US makes its request.