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Snowden? Who exactly is he?

By Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong | China Daily | Updated: 2013-06-28 08:07

Snowden? Who exactly is he?

Activists perform during a rally supporting Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency, in front of US embassy in Kiev on Thursday. Gleb Garanich / Reuters

Edward Snowden's bespectacled and goateed face was almost unavoidable in Hong Kong last week. It stared out from newsstands, banners and giant TV screens on shopping malls and office buildings after it became known that the admitted leaker of US secrets was in town and in hiding.

Still, when the United States asked Hong Kong for Snowden's provisional arrest, its response was essentially this: Who exactly do you mean?

Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen said Hong Kong officials weren't sure who to look for because the US government got Snowden's middle name wrong in documents filed to back its arrest request.

He said Hong Kong immigration records listed Snowden's middle name as Joseph, but the US government used the name James in some documents and referred to him only as Edward J. Snowden in others.

"These three names are not exactly the same. Therefore, we believed that there was a need to clarify," Yuen said on Tuesday.

Yuen said US authorities also failed to provide Snowden's passport number. He said officials received the arrest request on June 15 and sent a request on June 21 for clarification. Two days later, Snowden flew to Moscow.

"Up until the moment of Snowden's departure, the very minute, the US Department of Justice did not reply to our request for further information. Therefore, in our legal system, there is no legal basis for the requested provisional arrest warrant," Yuen said. In the absence of such a warrant, the "Hong Kong government has no legal basis for restricting or prohibiting Snowden leaving Hong Kong."

US officials don't accept Hong Kong's explanation, and neither do some legal experts in the city.

"It's not like he's some mystery figure. He revealed himself on TV," said University of Hong Kong law professor Simon Young. "The whole world knows what he looks like."

Young and Hong Kong-based extradition lawyer Michael Blanchflower said authorities are able to exercise their discretion and use other methods to identify fugitives, who often use aliases.

City's rule of law

"It may be in some cases that the person's name or passport number are not known, but for instance you could have a physical description accompanied by a photograph," Blanchflower said.

The decision to let Snowden go has raised tensions between the US and Hong Kong. US officials suggested that Beijing had a hand in letting Snowden leave Hong Kong. But Hong Kong leaders say they were following the city's rule of law in processing the US request.

The US Justice Department said the government gave Hong Kong all the information that was required under the terms of their extradition treaty.

"The fugitive's photos and videos were widely reported through multiple news outlets. That Hong Kong would ask for more information about his identity demonstrates that it was simply trying to create a pretext for not acting on the provisional arrest request," a spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the department.

"It wasn't a pretext at all," Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said on Thursday. "We were just following the laws of Hong Kong."

The Associated Press

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