WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange says Edward Snowden had little chance of being granted asylum in Hong Kong but would probably have escaped US extradition attempts because the city would "play it by the book".
Assange labelled himself a successful "people smuggler" for helping the whistle-blower escape to Russia via Chek Lap Kok airport on June 23, two weeks after the former CIA analyst first broke cover in Hong Kong.
"Snowden would be very unlikely to have received asylum in Hong Kong for a variety of political and bureaucratic reasons," Assange told the South China Morning Post yesterday from the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has been holed up for more than a year to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted on sexual assault allegations.
"We legally analysed his situation ... and conveyed to him that very few refugees who applied for asylum in Hong Kong had received it. However, we assessed there was a 65 per cent chance he would win his extradition case ... that he would ultimately prevail; that is the nature of the politics of the Hong Kong government and the Chinese politburo."
Snowden, a former US National Security Agency contractor, broke cover in Hong Kong on June 9 as the source of leaks exposing a vast network of secret NSA surveillance programmes.
He later disclosed documents to the Post which he claimed showed years of hacking by US spies into computers in Hong Kong and mainland China.
Assange, 42, said Snowden's choice of Hong Kong was "not what we would have advised" but that "it was definitely one of the most interesting political destinations he could have chosen".
"Our own political and legal analysis of Snowden's situation was that Hong Kong would play it by the book," he said.
This was to keep "its reputation as a country which has a strong rule of law when it is under a lot of scrutiny, a desire to not lose face from China and to not look like the US is pushing them around".
This approach "would be the best outcome", but it also meant the 30-year-old whistle-blower would be jailed, Assange said. "Hong Kong's law is such that during an extradition case there is a presumption against bail, so that while he was running that case, which would have gone for years, he'd have been in prison."
Two weeks after Snowden said he wanted the people of Hong Kong to decide his fate, he left the city with a WikiLeaks staffer and one of Assange's closest advisers, Sarah Harrison, aboard a Moscow-bound flight.
His departure came just hours after a sealed criminal complaint filed by the US was made public, detailing charges of espionage and theft of government files.
The Hong Kong government's decision to let Snowden leave the city angered US officials and caused cracks in the long-standing relationship.
"For that period of time, he was the world's most wanted man by the world's most powerful government and its full intelligence apparatus," Assange said.
"So it is a great success story, thanks to those who believed in his human rights and people in Hong Kong who were supportive of that."
Last month, Snowden was granted temporary asylum by the Kremlin, allowing him to leave the transit lounge of Moscow's Sheremetyevo international airport, where he had been in limbo for more than a month.
"It's very interesting to hear a lot about asylum seekers and to be one yourself," Assange said.
"And then to be a people smuggler as we have been with a number of individuals who needed protecting including Edward Snowden and his departure from Hong Kong and successful asylum application in Russia."
Assange, who formed the WikiLeaks Party in July, is currently in his final days of campaigning in a bid to secure a seat in the Senate ahead of Australia's federal election tomorrow. The party is fielding six candidates across three states, with Assange as the lead candidate in Victoria.
Its campaign was hit by an internal crisis after several high-profile candidates quit after a bungle over electoral preferences, a process that can influence how senators are chosen, were given to right-wing parties.