International Law

Did US flub Snowden extradition request? Hong Kong cites legal problems, Russia cites neutral zone


American University law professor Steve Vladeck offers his take on why Edward Snowden was allowed to leave Hong Kong this weekend.

“The Hong Kong authorities used the murkiness of extradition law to make what was a political decision,” he told the Washington Post. Snowden has been charged with espionage for revealing the data collection program by the National Security Agency.

Hong Kong allowed Snowden to board a flight to Russia on Sunday though the U.S. had requested his extradition. He then booked a flight from Russia to Cuba, but he was not on board the plane, the Associated Press reports. He has requested asylum in Ecuador, and he was expected to travel to Cuba on his way there.

Hong Kong authorities said they couldn’t prevent Snowden from leaving their country because the United States “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law.” Russia does not have an extradition agreement with the United States, and its officials said they have no legal authority to detain Snowden, the Washington Post reports. As long as Snowden is in a secure transit zone in the airport, he is not on Russian soil, according to Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s human rights ombudsman.

The New York Times reports that the United States may have flubbed Snowden’s case when it failed to revoke his passport. Former federal prosecutor David Laufman told the newspaper that the passport should have been revoked after charges were filed against Snowden on June 14. The United States did revoke Snowden’s passport on Saturday, but it was unclear if Hong Kong authorities were aware of the move or if it mattered because Snowden reportedly had special refugee travel documents from Ecuador arranged by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Attorney General Eric Holder had placed a call to his counterpart in Hong Kong on June 19 to stress the importance of extradition, and the United States had asked whether any additional documents were needed two days before, the Washington Post reports. Hong Kong requested more information on Friday, and U.S. officials were preparing the response when Snowden left for Russia.

Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, warned of “consequences” if Russia allows Snowden to board a plane out of the country. Kerry said the United States has extradited seven Russian prisoners in the last two years, and “reciprocity is pretty important.” The fact that Snowden did not get on the plane to Cuba raised the possibility Russia detained Snowden, either to send him to the United States or to question him for its own purposes, the Times says.

Ecuador does have an extradition treaty with the United States, but it has an exception for “crimes or offenses of a political character,” Bloomberg News reports. U.S. prosecutors may have tried to avoid the political crimes exception by also charging Snowden with theft of government property, New York lawyer Douglas Burns told the wire service.

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