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US Leaker Faces Hard Choices While in Hiding

Edward Snowden
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Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about U.S. surveillance programs, has few options to stay one step ahead of the authorities while in apparent hiding.

One possibility is to seek asylum in a place that does not have an extradition pact with the United States -- there are few in Asia alone, a short flight away from Hong Kong where he was last spotted, but none where he is guaranteed refuge.

On Tuesday the 29-year-old Snowden's whereabouts were unknown, a day after he checked out of a trendy hotel in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong. But large photos of his face were splashed on most Hong Kong newspapers with headlines such as "Deep Throat Hides in HK," and "World's Most Wanted Man Breaks Cover in Hong Kong."

(Read More: NSA Leaker's Firm Got Rich Off Government Secrets)

The coverage is likely to increase the chances of him being recognized although he could still blend with the city's tens of thousands of expatriates from the United States, Britain, Australia and Europe.

If and when the Justice Department charges him—and it's not certain when that will be—its next step will likely be to ask the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, for a provisional request to arrest him pending extradition to the United States.

Assuming that Snowden is still in Hong Kong, the judicial proceedings for an extradition request could take a year, and once completed it would be up to Hong Kong's leader, known as the chief executive, to decide on handing over Snowden, said Michael Blanchflower, a Hong Kong lawyer with three decades of experience in extradition cases.

"Ultimately it is his decision," he said.

But even if the chief executive allows the extradition, the fugitive can request a judicial review and those decisions could be appealed up through three court levels, Blanchflower said.

Although a semi-autonomous part of China, the former British colony has an independent justice system based on the British legal structure.

(Read More: Obama Defends US Surveillance Effort as 'Trade-Off' for Security)

One option for Snowden would be to claim he is the object of political persecution, and fight the issue in the courts to avoid extradition. He could argue that he would be subject to cruel and humiliating treatment in the United States. Hong Kong changed its regulations six months ago to require that a court consider cruel and humiliating treatment and not simply torture when considering extradition requests.

It's up to "the Chief Executive to determine whether the offence is one that's of a political character, in which case the extradition is blocked," said Hong Kong-based lawyer, Tim Parker.

However, the strategy carries considerable risk because the U.S. could simply provide diplomatic assurances that he would not be subject to cruel or humiliating treatment.

"At that point it would be difficult for Hong Kong to resist deporting him," said Patricia Ho, a Hong Kong lawyer who specializes in asylum and refugee claims.

But as things stand now, there is nothing to prevent Snowden from traveling to a destination of his choice -- to one of the handful of nearby jurisdictions or countries that do not have extradition treaties with the United States.

One of the Asian countries without an American treaty is China, though there is no guarantee Beijing would want to risk a confrontation with the United States by taking Snowden in, even if gained a windfall of sensitive American intelligence information in the process. Snowden himself has given no indication that he prepared to cooperate with any foreign intelligence service, including China's.

(Read More: US Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls)

China's state media has confined its coverage of the Snowden affair to factual reports, and on online social media, China's relatively unfettered venue for public discourse, comments have been largely muted.

"People in China are used to not having security and privacy on the internet, so this does not come as a big surprise," Peking University journalism professor Hu Yong said in an interview. Official media, Hu said, would "try not to focus too much on how wrong the practice is, or whether the leaker is right or wrong. They will use the news to highlight that China is not the only country with such practices."

Another Asian flight possibility for Snowden is the self-governing island of Taiwan, which split from China in 1949 after a protracted civil war, and since 1979, has not had formal diplomatic relations with the U.S.

In lieu of a formal extradition treaty, American extraction requests to Taiwan are examined on a case by case basis.

An official at the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taipei—the American Institute in Taiwan—said Taiwan has generally been cooperative on the extradition issue.

"Taipei has so far been pretty good on responding to our requests," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Also, any attempt by Snowden to come to Taiwan could prove extremely embarrassing to the government of Ma Ying-jeou, which while doing its best to improve relations with China, also seeks to maintain close ties with the United States, its major security backer. An official at the Justice Ministry said Tuesday there were no indications at all that Snowden would make any attempt to land on the island.

Aside from numerous flights from Hong Kong's busy international airport, Snowden could take an hour-long high speed ferry ride to Macau, also a semiautonomous region of China. From Macau he could hop over to Guangdong province in mainland China.

Beyond Taiwan and China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and North Korea are also theoretical destinations for Snowden, because they lack extradition treaties with the U.S. But the communist or authoritarian systems they share make them unlikely destinations for a man who has gone to considerable lengths to portray his decision to reveal National Security Agency surveillance programs as an act of conscience.

Outside of Asia, Snowden might also consider seeking asylum in countries like Iceland and Russia. According to the Kommersant Daily, Moscow has said it might provide asylum. But Russia is also an authoritarian nation, so there is no guarantee that Snowden would accept any offer that Moscow rendered.

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