Edward Snowden the former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, charged by the United States with espionage, was allowed to leave Hong Kong on Sunday because the U.S. extradition request did not comply with the law, the Hong Kong government said.
Snowden left for Moscow on Sunday and his final destination may be Ecuador or Iceland, the South China Morning Post said, a move that is bound to infuriate Washington.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was unaware of Snowden’s whereabouts or travel plans. The WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website said it helped Snowden find “political asylum in a democratic country”. It did not elaborate.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said last week he would not leave the sanctuary of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London even if Sweden stopped pursuing sexual assault claims against him because he feared arrest on the orders of the United States.
U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with theft of U.S. government property, unauthorized communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, with the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act.
The United States had asked Hong Kong, a special administrative region (SAR) of China, to send him home.
“The U.S. government earlier on made a request to the HKSAR government for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against Mr Snowden,” the Hong Kong government said in a statement.
“Since the documents provided by the U.S. government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR government has requested the U.S. government to provide additional information … As the HKSAR government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 and although it retains an independent legal system, and its own extradition laws, Beijing has control over Hong Kong’s foreign affairs.
The South China Morning Post earlier quoted Snowden offering new details about the United States’ spy activities, including accusations of U.S. hacking of Chinese mobile telephone companies and targeting China’s Tsinghua University.
Documents previously leaked by Snowden revealed that the NSA has access to vast amounts of data such as emails, chat rooms and video from large companies, including Facebook and Google, under a government programme known as Prism.
The government statement said Hong Kong had written to the United States “requesting clarification” on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by U.S. government agencies.
“The HKSAR Government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong,” it said.
China’s Xinhua news agency, referring to Snowden’s accusations about the hacking of Chinese targets, said they were “clearly troubling signs”.
It added, “They demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.”