WASHINGTON (TheBlaze/AP) -- The Obama administration on Saturday sharply warned Hong Kong against slow-walking the extradition of Eric Snowden, reflecting concerns over a prolonged legal battle before the government contractor ever appears in a U.S. courtroom to answer espionage charges for revealing two highly classified surveillance programs.
A senior administration official issued a pointed warning that if Hong Kong doesn't act soon "it will complicate our bilateral relations and raise questions about Hong Kong's commitment to the rule of law." The official was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and insisted on anonymity.
A formal extradition request to bring Snowden to the United States from Hong Kong could drag through appeal courts for years and would pit Beijing against Washington at a time China tries to deflect U.S. accusations that it carries out extensive surveillance on American government and commercial operations.
A criminal complaint against Snowden, who says he he leaked highly classified documents about two surveillance programs, was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia on June 14 and unsealed Friday.
The 30-year-old Snowden is charged with unauthorized communication of national defense information, willful communication of classified communications intelligence information under the Espionage Act and theft of government property. Each crime carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on conviction.
Snowden told the South China Morning Post in an interview published Saturday on its website 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."
A prominent former politician in Hong Kong, Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said he doubted whether Beijing would intervene yet.
"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.
Snowden could contest 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.
Hong Kong lawmakers said that the Chinese government should make the final decision on whether Snowden should be extradited to the United States.
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 urged the people of Hong Kong to "take to the streets to protect Snowden."
The New York Times has reported that for the past week Snowden "appears to have been staying in an apartment in Hong Kong’s Western District that is controlled by the Hong Kong government’s security branch, according to a person who has followed the case and spoke on the condition of anonymity. Mr. Snowden appears to have been granted access to the apartment after seeking protection from the Hong Kong police against a possible rendition attempt by the United States, the person said."
A Reuters article characterizes Snowden's whereabouts a bit differently:
The South China Morning Post said Snowden, who has exposed secret U.S. surveillance programs including new details published on Saturday about alleged hacking of Chinese phone companies, was not in police protection in Hong Kong, as had been reported elsewhere.
"Contrary to some reports, the former CIA analyst has not been detained, is not under police protection but is in a 'safe place' in Hong Kong," the newspaper said.
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Andy Tsang declined to comment other than to say Hong Kong would deal with the case in accordance with the law.
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