Whistle-blower Edward Snowden is facing up to 30 years in jail after the US government filed espionage charges against him and reportedly called for his arrest in Hong Kong.
The Sunday Morning Post understands that contrary to reports yesterday, the former CIA technician is not under the protection of the police and has not been detained.
The 30-year-old is said to be "in a safe place" in the city.
Snowden made global headlines on June 9 when he broke cover in Hong Kong and admitted being the source of leaks to newspapers which revealed widespread phone and internet surveillance by the US National Security Agency.
The US government filed a sealed criminal complaint dated June 14 in the US District Court in Virginia, where Snowden's former employer Booz Allen Hamilton is based.
But details were made public only on Friday, US time - which, coincidentally, was Snowden's 30th birthday.
Snowden is accused of theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorised person.
If convicted, he could be jailed for up to 10 years on each count. By filing the charges, the US government has launched a legal process under which the Hong Kong authorities must identify offences under the city's law equivalent to the theft and espionage charges.
Hong Kong's extradition treaty with the US stipulates it cannot surrender a suspect accused of offences which would not be crimes under Hong Kong law.
The treaty also allows the suspect to walk free if the charges are ruled to be politically motivated.
Police in Hong Kong refused to comment on the development and said the government "will handle the case strictly in accordance with the law and procedures of Hong Kong".
Without referring directly to Snowden, Police Commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung said if a foreign jurisdiction which had signed a mutual legal assistance agreement with Hong Kong filed a legal request to the city, the government and the police would handle it according to local law and protocol.
"Such request will go through [our] Department of Justice and local courts," Tsang said.
Last night there was no official confirmation from the Department of Justice that a formal request to detain Snowden had been made by the US authorities.
US officials have reportedly asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden under a US-issued provisional arrest warrant, but Tsang said such a mechanism did not exist in Hong Kong. He said: "We only enforce the Hong Kong law here, not foreign laws." Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said if the extradition process was triggered, the government would not allow anything illegal or unfair to happen.
He said Snowden's case would be treated like any other.
On Friday, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the government was highly concerned about the case and that a progress report would be released to the public at an appropriate time.
Former security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said that under the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, if Washington does request extradition then Beijing must be notified before any action is taken.
She said the Hong Kong equivalent of the US Espionage Act was the Official Secrets Ordinance.
But Civic Party lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah disagreed. "Because the Article 23 [national security legislation] was not passed [by the Legislative Council in 2003], the ordinance only prohibits leaking national secrets of Commonwealth countries," he said.
Snowden has said he chose to come to Hong Kong because he believed in the city's judicial independence.
"I've had many opportunities to flee Hong Kong but I would rather stay and fight the United States government in the courts because I have faith in Hong Kong's rule of law," he told the South China Morning Post on June 12.
An Icelandic businessman linked to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said on Thursday that a Chinese-owned private jet was on standby to fly Snowden from Hong Kong to the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, where he could seek asylum.
How it all unravelled: the diary of informer Edward Snowden
June 6 The Guardian reveals the US government is mining phone records from American telecommunications giant Verizon. The company has been forced to hand over information to the National Security Agency (NSA). The report reveals for the first time how the administration of Barack Obama is collecting large amounts of personal information from the public.
June 7The Guardian and The Washington Post expose top-secret NSA activities, including the Prism surveillance programme, based on information from whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Prism is a clandestine national security electronic surveillance programme operated by the NSA since 2007 that targets millions of people worldwide.
June 9The Guardian publicises Snowden's identity at his request. He explains his reasoning for forgoing anonymity: "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong." He also reveals he is hiding in Hong Kong.
June 12 Snowden speaks exclusively to the South China Morning Post. In a frank hour-long interview, the former CIA operative says the US government has been hacking computers in Hong Kong and mainland China for years. He also vows to fight likely attempts by Washington to extradite him for leaking state secrets. "Hong Kong should not be put in a position to defend the criminal attacks of the US NSA," he says.
June 13 The FBI launches a criminal investigation and vows to take "all necessary steps" to prosecute Snowden for exposing the programmes. "These disclosures have caused significant harm to our nation and to our safety," FBI director Robert Mueller says. "We are taking all necessary steps to hold the person responsible for these disclosures."
June 14 Snowden shows classified US government data to the Post that provide a rare insight into the effectiveness of Washington's top-secret global cyberspying programme. The detailed records show specific dates and IP addresses of computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland hacked by the NSA over a four-year period. The hacking revelations unite Hong Kong lawmakers. Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing becomes one of the first leading political figures in the city to comment on the furore. "Hong Kong people will feel worried if the allegations are found to be backed by facts," Tsang says.
June 15 Hundreds of people rally in support of Snowden, marching from Chater Garden to the US consulate in Central, before continuing to the Hong Kong government headquarters in Admiralty. The demonstrators hand a letter to consulate officials calling on the US to stop monitoring innocent people.
Monday The Guardian publishes more details from the former US intelligence analyst, revealing that Britain spied on delegates at two G20 summits. Later, Snowden takes part in an online question-and-answer session with the newspaper. He bats off suggestions that he is in cahoots with China and says being called a "traitor" by former US vice-president Dick Cheney is "the highest honour you can give an American".
Wednesday Any hope Snowden has of gaining asylum in Hong Kong is dealt a blow as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' office says no case will be "fast-tracked". The UNHCR says priority is given to older cases.
Friday As Snowden marks his 30th birthday holed up in Hong Kong, Icelandic businessman Olafur Sigurvinsson volunteers publicly to whisk Snowden to Iceland on a private plane. Hours later, the US government makes public charges against Snowden under the Espionage Act.
Yesterday The Hong Kong government is silent on Snowden's fate. Police commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung says only that all foreign citizens must comply with local laws.
The view on the street
"It doesn't matter if he's a refugee or political criminal; let's see if [the Hong Kong government] wants to give him asylum. Hong Kong has become part of China. Now Hong Kong is trapped in the middle like a sandwich. It's better to let a third party deal with it. Based on the Basic Law, Hong Kong doesn't have the diplomatic right; it depends on the Chinese government."
Roger Keung, 33, engineer
"It depends on what Hong Kong thinks he has done wrong. As an employee, he shouldn't expose his company's information. But he thinks the US government has done the wrong thing. And he exposed this based on his conscience."
Julia Lai, 33, administrator
"I think the current Hong Kong government led by C. Y. Leung is incapable of dealing with Snowden. The Chinese government is more likely to make the decision in this case. I think the Hong Kong government shouldn't extradite him back to the US, because he speaks up for the public and the unprivileged, not only for the American citizens."
Iris Sze, 32, artist
"They should arrest him and send him back to the US and let him face the charges he has being accused of. If there has been an agreement made with the US I think that they need to stick to the [extradition] agreement. I do feel that he is putting US citizens in more danger by what he has done and I do feel like it is a criminal act."
Susan Worley, 51, housewife
"I think the Hong Kong government shouldn't arrest him, because he did the right thing. Now we can see the US government did the wrong thing, just like how it accused the Chinese government."
Kong Siu-chun, 60, trader
"They should let him go, because I honestly feel he took it upon himself to make a decision … that the people of America would have wanted him to do. He took a very dangerous step to do what he did and I feel as an American-Canadian that my privacy is exposed through social media, so nobody's really private … I think he needs to [stand trial in] the US and not in Hong Kong."
Donna Striebe, 65, interior designer
Danny Lee and Vicky Feng