Now that the U.S. has charged National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden under the Espionage Act, legal experts are saying it could take three to five years to extradite him from Hong Kong.
The U.S. charged the 29-year-old with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person.
Since 1998, the U.S. has had an extradition treaty with Hong Kong under which scores of Amerians have been returned to the U.S. to face trail. Legal experts say Snowden would be extradited under a secrets ordinance in the treaty, but the timeframe for that extradition is unclear.
Hong Kong has not charged Snowden with an equivalent crime. He is therefore allowed to leave the city. The government in Hong Kong will have to issue an “authority to proceed,” and once it is granted by a magistrate a formal arrest warrant can be issued for Snowden.
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Law professor at the Univeristy of Hong Kong, Simon Young, says that Hong Kong might find a equivalent charge for the theft charge, but for the spying offenses it would run into “litigation and dispute” if it levied equivalent charges.
If a court eventually rules he should be extradited, leaders in Hogn Kong and China could still veto the ruling on the grounds of national security or defense.
Snowden’s 90-day visa should expire in August, but he can file for asylum, a system that is thoroughly backed up.
"We prioritize older cases," Nazneen Farooqi, a United Nations High Commission for Refugees Protection Officer, told the South China Morning Post.
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There are 1,200 people seeking asylum in Hong Kong who have waiting years to be processed, reports NBC News.
A Hong Kong journalist, Steve Vines, told NBC, "there isn't a strong tradition of support for people seeking asylum here.”
On the other hand, Hong Kong is turning out to be a great platform for Snowden to garner media attention.
"This is a place where you can make many connections," said Regina Ip, a Hong Kong legislator. "Our common law system gives Mr. Snowden plenty of opportunity to contest any request for rendition or for his asylum claims."
Ip said Hong Kong is currently reveling in the national attention Snowden has brought them.