US whistle-blower Edward Snowden could face criminal charges and, if convicted, prison time in Hong Kong for leaking US surveillance data if that intelligence were based on Chinese or Hong Kong government tip-offs, a law professor said on Thursday.
Snowden, a 29-year-old former intelligence technician, could face imprisonment for up to two years and a fine of up to HK$500,000 - under the Official Secrets Ordinance that dates to colonial times - if he were charged and convicted in Hong Kong.
Simon Young Ngai-man, director of the Centre for Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, pointed to the possibility that US surveillance could have been based on tip-offs by the Hong Kong or Chinese governments.
"Why did the US obtain this information in the first place?" said Young. "They may have been tipped off by individuals, or maybe even by the Hong Kong government or the Chinese government themselves."
He was referring to allegations by Snowden that the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland since 2009. None of the documents revealed any information about Chinese military systems, he told the South China Morning Post.
"If [Snowden] discloses that first source of information, he could be violating Hong Kong law," Young said.
"These recent developments underline the importance of Mr Snowden obtaining immediate legal advice in Hong Kong," Young wrote in a note on Thursday, "especially before any further disclosures are being made."
According to the ordinance, it is an offence to obtain information relating to "security or intelligence, defines or international relations" that has been secretly communicated to foreign countries by the central government or Hong Kong and to make a "damaging disclosure" of such information.
Young said that prosecutions under the ordinance are "rare, if ever. But this is a special case".
Josephine Chan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, declined to comment on whether the city was considering pressing charges against Snowden.
Snowden, a former national security contractor and technical assistant for the US Central Intelligence Agency, is currently thought to be hiding in Hong Kong. On Wednesday, he told the Post he had put his fate into the hands of the Hong Kong courts and people.
His disclosures have triggered a criminal investigation by the US Department of Justice with is likely to lead to an extradition request to face charges in the US.
Video: What does Hong Kong think about Edward Snowden? by Silvio Carrillo and Vicky Feng