US whistleblower: Choice of Hong Kong due to "free speech tradition"

HONG KONG (AFP) - The US consulate and Hong Kong officials declined to comment on Monday on the case of Mr Edward Snowden, believed to be holed up in the city after leaking details of a secret US Internet surveillance programme.

Mr Snowden, whose exact location is unknown, revealed that he was in the southern Chinese city in an interview with the Guardian newspaper released on Sunday, noting his choice of Hong Kong was due to its "strong tradition of free speech".

The United States and Hong Kong signed an extradition treaty in 1996, a year before the city was handed over from British to Chinese control, under which both parties agreed to hand over fugitive offenders.

But any US attempt to repatriate Mr Snowden will be a complicated process, with Beijing able to veto extraditions implicating the "defence, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy" of China.

"We don't have anything for you at this point," Deputy for Public Affairs at the US Consulate in Hong Kong Scott Robinson told Agence France-Presse.

In his interview, Mr Snowden, a 29-year-old government contractor who has been working at the National Security Agency (NSA) for the past four years, described the consulate as a "CIA station just up the road".

The Hong Kong Security Bureau, which oversees immigration, the police and intelligence services in the territory, declined to comment.

"Whenever an answer is ready, it will be made available," a spokesman said.

Mr Snowden also expressed an interest in seeking asylum in Iceland, saying it was a country that stood up for Internet freedoms.

But the Icelandic consulate in Hong Kong said it had "no comment" on the case, refusing to say whether he had been in touch.

Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous territory with its own political and legal system that guarantees civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including freedom of speech and association.

Under the "one country, two systems" principle, the Special Administrative Region has its own constitution, the Basic Law, giving it a high degree of autonomy, although this does not apply to foreign relations and defence.

"To extradite someone will probably require a lot of process in Hong Kong," the city's Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk Kai told AFP.

"Anybody here in Hong Kong should be protected under international standards. We hope anybody here would be dealt with fairly and their rights are respected."

Mr Snowden told the Guardian he had gone public because he could not "allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building".

"My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them," he said.

A former technical assistant for the CIA, he worked for the NSA as an employee of various outside contractors, including Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton.

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