Hong Kong lawmakers yesterday lambasted the American government's "loose practice of the rule of law", even as a top US diplomat warned of difficulties ahead in mending relations between the city and Washington.
Amid the war of words, US President Barack Obama sought to downplay the international chase for whistle-blower Edward Snowden, dismissing Snowden as "a 29-year-old hacker".
Snowden, who is now 30, is wanted on espionage charges for leaking details of secret US government surveillance.
The US government had accused Hong Kong officials of feigning confusion over Snowden's name as a pretext for not detaining him before he fled to Russia. A US Department of Justice spokeswoman said the city's request for clarification and additional information was not genuine as images of the former US intelligence contractor were widely available through news outlets.
"Hong Kong cannot simply rely on Snowden's picture to confirm his identity. It would be a serious mistake if the Hong Kong government arrested the wrong person," said pan-democratic lawmaker and barrister Ronny Tong Ka-wah SC.
The US government could not expect Hong Kong officials to make an arrest based on media photos of Snowden, he said, criticising the US Department of Justice for "not understanding and respecting Hong Kong's legal system and the spirit of rule of law".
"It is ridiculous for the US - which always brags about their respect for human rights - to be so loose in handling the request for Snowden's arrest. How could the US government issue documents each bearing three different names for Snowden? This shows their practice is sloppy."
US consul-general Stephen Young said that he had spent three years in Hong Kong working for a good relationship between the city and the US, which had now suffered "a loss of trust".
Rebuilding that trust, Young said, "is not going to be easy," adding that, "where we have a whole series of agreements, and protocols and practices - our confidence has been shaken."
Lawmaker Ip Kwok-him, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said the US government was "shameless" for heaping accusations against Hong Kong to dodge questions about cybersnooping in the city and on the mainland. "The US government is talking nonsense," he said.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying rejected the accusation that Hong Kong had a pretext for delaying the request for Snowden's arrest. The city's officials were following the principle of procedural justice when it asked the US government to provide information on Snowden, he said.
At a news conference in Dakar, Senegal, Obama made light of the matter, saying the US would not be scrambling jets or engaging in diplomatic bartering to get Snowden extradited. He said the damage to national security had already been done and his focus now was making sure it could not happen again.
"I'm not going to have one case with a suspect who we're trying to extradite suddenly be elevated to the point where I've got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues, simply to get a guy extradited," Obama said.
Obama said he hadn't called President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin to request their co-operation, saying: "I shouldn't have to."
Obama said such matters are routinely dealt with at a law-enforcement level, calling Snowden's extradition "not exceptional from a legal perspective."