Edward Snowden's decision to flee to Hong Kong as he prepared to expose the U.S. government's secret surveillance programs may not save him from prosecution due to an extradition treaty in force since 1998.
A 29-year-old former CIA employee, Snowden has identified himself as the person who gave the Guardian and the Washington Post classified documents about how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) obtained data from U.S. telecom and Internet companies.
While preparing his leaks, Snowden left Hawaii for Hong Kong on May 20 so he would be in a place that might be able to resist U.S. prosecution attempts, he told the Guardian.
"Mainland China does have significant restrictions on free speech but the people of Hong Kong have a long tradition of protesting in the streets, making their views known," Snowden, a U.S. citizen, said in a video interview posted on the Guardian's website.
The NSA has requested a criminal probe into the leaks and, on Sunday, the U.S. Justice Department said it was in the initial stages of a criminal investigation.
The United States and Hong Kong signed their extradition treaty in 1996, a year before the former British colony was returned to China. It allows for the exchange of criminal suspects in a formal process that may also involve the Chinese government.
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The treaty went into force in 1998 and provides that Hong Kong authorities can hold Snowden for 60 days, following a U.S. request that includes probable cause, while Washington prepares a formal extradition request. Some lawyers with expertise in extraditions said it would be a challenge for Snowden to circumvent the treaty if the U.S. government decides to prosecute him.
"They're not going to put at risk their relationship with the U.S. over Mr. Snowden, and very few people have found that they have the clout to persuade another country to go out of their way for them," said Robert Anello, a New York lawyer who has handled extradition cases.