Authorities in the US on Friday issued a provisional arrest warrant for Edward Snowden after charging the former National Security Agency (NSA) employee with three offenses related to his leak of highly classified information earlier this month.
The charges include “theft of government property” and two violations of the Espionage Act: the “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and the “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.” Each offense carries a maximum 10-year jail term.
Federal prosecutors have asked authorities in Hong Kong to detain Snowden, though that may be easier said than done. The whistleblower hasn’t been seen in public since arriving in the Chinese territory from Hawaii on May 20.
His last known location was The Mira Hotel, where he gave a number of interviews to the Guardian and Washington Post earlier this month about the NSA’s top secret PRISM program involving the systematic surveillance of telephone calls and Internet communications.
Snowden claims the NSA has “direct access” to the servers of Internet giants such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, though these companies have been disputing the claim.
Many will be keen to see how the situation unfolds – not least the American citizen at the center of the saga – now that criminal charges have been filed. Although the US and Hong Kong have an extradition treaty in place, it can’t be used for political offenses. If Snowden does at some point find himself facing extradition proceedings, he could fight them in the courts, a process which would more than likely drag on for many months, even years.
There’s also a chance he could apply for asylum to avoid a return to the US. This, too, could be a long drawn-out process, with the Hong Kong authorities unable to formally surrender an individual until a decision has been made. There has also been talk of Snowden seeking asylum in Iceland.
Another factor which could influence proceedings is Beijing’s response to the situation. Hong Kong has had a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement with China since its return to Beijing from the UK in 1997, affording it a degree of independence from the leadership in Beijing. However, on issues concerning defense and diplomatic affairs, Beijing is permitted to step in.
Snowden told the Guardian earlier this month that he does not expect to see home again, at least not as a free man.