HONG KONG (AFP) - Attempts to extradite ex-intelligence technician Edward Snowden, charged with espionage by US authorities, will result in a protracted legal battle in Hong Kong that could last years, experts said on Saturday.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that retained a separate legal system when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, has a long-standing extradition treaty with the United States, but Beijing has the potential to veto any ruling.
However, Beijing has appeared to distance itself from any decision on the possible extradition of Snowden, who is in hiding in the southern Chinese city after blowing the lid on vast US surveillance programmes targetting phone calls and Internet traffic.
Hong Kong officials remained tight-lipped on Saturday as to whether they will hold Snowden a day after Washington charged the former CIA contractor with espionage, theft and "conversion of government property".
Hong Kong lawmaker Alan Leong said that if local authorities proceed with extradition, it could result in a lengthy legal battle.
"If every appeal opportunity is taken, I suppose the process will last between three and five years" at the very least, he told AFP.
The case could possibly drag "through at least the magistrates' court, the Court of Appeal and the Court of Final Appeal. So, at least three levels of (Hong Kong) courts," he said.
Snowden can claim fears of political persecution and ask for political asylum, which will buy him time, said Dr Christopher Gane, the dean of law school of Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"If the court decides this man cannot be sent back, this is the end of it. He can't be sent back," he told AFP.
"But if the court decides he could be sent back, it is still up to the Hong Kong chief executive to decide whether to do so. This is when all kinds of possible considerations can come in," he added.
Experts have claimed that Snowden is testing Hong Kong's civil liberties under its "one country, two systems" framework by retreating to the former British colony.
Snowden has exposed details on vast US surveillance operations, leaking documents that appear to show huge quantities of private telephone and Internet data - such as emails and call records - have been scooped up with little or no judicial oversight.
The revelations have embarrassed US President Barack Obama's administration, which was forced to defend US intelligence agencies practice of gathering huge amounts of telephone and Internet data from private users around the world.
Snowden has warned more leaks were on the way, declaring: "Truth is coming and it cannot be stopped."