By the time another delightfully lazy Sri Lankan weekend rolls in, the young American Edward Snowden who blew the cover on the creepy dealings of the United States of Surveillance, would have landed in Iceland, or may not have. The 29-year-old has now been charged with theft of US government property, disclosing defence information, and [...]

Sunday Times 2

Would-be-exile Snowden set to flee refugee hell-hole


By the time another delightfully lazy Sri Lankan weekend rolls in, the young American Edward Snowden who blew the cover on the creepy dealings of the United States of Surveillance, would have landed in Iceland, or may not have.

The 29-year-old has now been charged with theft of US government property, disclosing defence information, and revealing classified intel information.

According to Iceland’s English websites that cite local news reports, the former intelligence agency contractor who surfaced in Hong Kong with his loot of dynamite documents, could be aboard a business jet from the Chinese island at the tip of China’s southern Guangdong Province heading to Europe’s westernmost island, where the Evangelical Lutheran population of 295,000 is dwarfed by the number of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

The private jet belongs to a Chinese businessman, according to news reports that have cited Olafur Sigurvinsson, the head of WikiLeaks partner company Datacell. Reykjavik-based Datacell is a data hosting service provider and a data center operator.

It is not known who owns the business jet. From Hong Kong, Snowden could escape by other means, including by boat. Some suspect that the business jet story is a distraction and the man has fled or has secured other options.

And yet, the discussion about Snowden’s possible arrest and extradition is about to intensify. On Friday afternoon, the city’s Secretary for Justice, Rimsky Yuen, said any extradition requests will be handled according to laws and that Hong Kong would not allow unlawful or unfair treatment. Just days earlier, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, an unelected official anointed by Beijing to head the government, said the Snowden case would be handled according to Hong Kong’s law and established procedures, “and the facts”. Leung broke his silence for the first time on Monday.

Under Article 63 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, criminal prosecutions must be conducted “free from any interference”.

Chinese state publications, including the popular Global Times, meanwhile, have thrown this Rubik’s cube on to Hong Kong’s lap, openly saying the city should take the lead in resolving the matter. In a commentary on Wednesday, the Global Times also deftly played the public opinion card, suggesting it will be a “key factor to address the issue”. The same publication, noted the public opinion factor consistently in other commentaries as well.

Besides, Wednesday’s editorial, titled “Let Hong Kong Decide Snowden’s Fate”, declared extradition is, “an inconceivable option”.
The Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily said Beijing was unwilling to take on other people’s “mess”.

A woman walks past a banner displayed in support of Edward Snowden in Hong Kong . AFP

So far, Beijing has officially commented once about Snowden. That too, on Monday, and was prompted by a remark by neo-con flag bearer Dick Cheney. The former US vice president said on Fox News that Snowden was spying for China. Beijing retorted: “Nonsense”.
Beijing’s public face with regard to Hong Kong and Snowden is not surprising considering past experience. Hong Kong people resist and resent Beijing’s interference in their affairs. China is not trusted, reputed polls show. Suspicions have increased and tensions have risen. On one occasion, a group of citizens took out full page colour ads in Chinese dailies depicting a locust atop the city’s towers. The locust represented the mainlanders.

Considering Beijing’s own interest in Iceland, Snowden may not be out of mind for the Chinese.

Iceland may be remote, but China has cast its gaze at the island. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao hopped into Reykjavik last year and Beijing is negotiating a free trade deal.

One businessman from China who laid eyes on the volcanic island and thought of spending US$200 million for a piece of Iceland is Huang Nubo, a real estate billionaire who controls Beijing-based Zhongkun Investment Group. He has been associated with the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. Although the Nato-member gave him the cold shoulder, as of May, Huang had not given up on his plans.

So far, while Snowden let Hong Kong in on a few shady activities of the Americans in the city, he has not disclosed specifics about Washington’s spying in China. Some in Hong Kong believe that he just might spill more on China if and when he sets foot on Reykjavik, or elsewhere.

But others believe it is just as well that Snowden should not seek asylum in this costly business city, where many refugees live in corrugated shacks in remote shanty towns. Snowden however, has not publicly indicated interest in seeking asylum, except saying to the South China Morning Post, the leading English daily, that Hong Kong people should decide his fate. It was the only interview he gave to a city publication.

Hong Kong does not recognise refugees or asylum seekers. If Snowden had sought asylum through the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Hong Kong, he would have had to cool his heels for years until his application is heard. The UNHCR, for one, is in debt to the Hong Kong Government to the tune of HK$1.16 billion (19.2 billion rupees, or more than the value of Sri Lanka’s exports to China in 2012), which was spent on Vietnamese refugees in the 1990s.

For any potential refugee, glitzy Hong Kong with its share of squalor and poverty (266,500 on welfare), is a dump for discards, although it solidly guards the principles of the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

Hong Kong has fewer than 95 recognised refugees.

It has an unchallenged policy of not granting asylum to refugees and it is not obliged to “facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees”.

Refugee claims are processed by the UNHCR office under a January 2009 memorandum of understanding between Hong Kong and the agency. Besides, while China and the UK (the former colonial master of HK) are contracting states to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), neither has applied the convention to Hong Kong. Refugees are not allowed to work in Hong Kong, either. Just this April, a Sri Lankan torture claimant who had arrived in 2000, became the first person to receive a temporary work permit from the Immigration Department. The male refugee had been preparing a lawsuit against immigration in the highest court, the Court of Final Appeal, when he received the news.

Earlier, the Sri Lankan and four other refugees lost a lawsuit seeking the right to work in challenges at the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal held in November that refugees could not invoke the Bill of Rights Ordinance either to earn a living. All things considered, the asylum option could not be tempting to Snowden: Perhaps one good reason for him to want to flee Hong Kong. But, while he took cover in Hong Kong, the drama played out like a late night silent movie. The public provided the sound track, knowing that China is not above reproach either. Beijing’s record on those who challenge its rule is brutal. Just ask the many dissidents who have fled to the US.

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