NSA Prism revelations: Hong Kong remains silent on Edward Snowden extradition

US Department of Justice has filed espionage charges against Snowden

Hong Kong has given no official reaction to US authorities' announcement of charges filed against NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is thought to be hiding in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

Snowden has admitted providing information to journalists about two highly classified NSA surveillance programs and yesterday the US Department of Justice said it was charging the 30-year-old with espionage and theft of government property.

Asked about the charges, Police Commissioner Andy Tsang only told reporters that the case would be dealt with according to the law, and a police statement said it was "inappropriate" for the police to comment on the case.

The city of seven million people is ultimately answerable to Beijing but maintains an independent judiciary and media.

Beijing itself has no extradition agreement with Washington, and Article 3 of the US-Hong Kong treaty allows the city to refuse extradition if it believes that it might impact on China’s “defence, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy”.

Hong Kong can also refuse extradition if either it or China believes the request is politically motivated, and that the person would be prosecuted for his or her political views.

Outspoken legislator Leung Kwok-hung said Beijing should instruct Hong Kong to protect Snowden from extradition before his case gets dragged through the court system. Leung also urged the people of Hong Kong to "take to the streets to protect Snowden."

And Cyd Ho, vice-chairwoman of the pro-democracy Labour Party, said China "should now make its stance clear to the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) government" before the case goes before a court.

China has urged Washington to provide explanations following the disclosures of National Security Agency programs which collect millions of telephone records and track foreign internet activity on US networks, but it has not commented on Snowden's status in Hong Kong. 

Cyberespionage has been a bone of contention between the world's two biggest economies, whose leaders met earlier this month. After a two-day meeting between President Barack Obama and his new Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, the best that US national security adviser Tom Donilon could boast was that "the Chinese senior leadership understand clearly the importance of this issue to the United States."

China is still trying to deflect US accusations that it carries out extensive surveillance on American government and commercial operations.

Snowden's whereabouts have not been publicly known since he checked out of a Hong Kong hotel on June 10. He said in an interview with the South China Morning Post that he hoped to stay in the autonomous region of China because he has faith in "the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate."

Tsang said in interview broadcast on local television that he could not comment when asked about a local newspaper report that Snowden was in a police "safe house."

A prominent former politician in Hong Kong, Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said he doubted whether Beijing would intervene at this stage.

"Beijing would only intervene according to my understanding at the last stage. If the magistrate said there is enough to extradite, then Mr. Snowden can then appeal," he said.

Lee said Beijing could then decide at the end of the appeal process if it wanted Snowden extradited or not.

The process could become a prolonged legal battle, with Snowden contesting extradition on grounds of political persecution.

Hong Kong lawyer Mark Sutherland said that the filing of a refugee, torture or inhuman punishment claim acts as an automatic bar on any extradition proceedings until those claims can be assessed.

"Some asylum seekers came to Hong Kong 10 years ago and still haven't had their protection claims assessed," Sutherland said.