HONG KONG — Last Friday Edward Snowden wanted one thing from the Hong Kong government. It was crunch time and he needed to know where he stood.
In a wide-ranging interview with ABC News, Snowden’s attorney, Albert Ho, described his client’s request. Snowden knew if the U.S. succeeded in getting him arrested, he would be facing a long extradition battle in the Hong Kong courts. His only other choice was to flee. He asked Ho to make a direct appeal to the Hong Kong government. Would Hong Kong welcome him if he chose to stay or not?
“If the Hong Kong government was going to fight very vigorously to get him out of Hong Kong then it would not be good for him to fight against the Hong Kong government, the Chinese government and the United States government, standing together,” said Ho.
Ho described a focused, intelligent and calm young man. As the circle around him grew to include human rights activists, WikiLeaks representatives and others, Ho said, Snowden kept his head and made his own decisions.
Snowden wanted some kind of guarantee from the Hong Kong government to help him make his decision now that he knew the U.S. wanted him arrested on charges of espionage. He asked Ho to get something in writing. Ho said he relayed the message to a top Hong Kong official on Friday afternoon. Hours passed. Saturday morning came and turned into afternoon. He heard nothing back.
At some point, Ho said, Snowden was paid a visit by a person Ho described as an ‘intermediary’ with a degree of authority from the Chinese side. Whether that person was in direct contact with the Hong Kong government, or Beijing, or working with yet another third party was unclear. His message was not: Snowden was told to leave.
“He was assured he could leave without interruption,” said Ho. “But he was really concerned whether or not this assurance was reliable. He wanted to see confirmation. He didn’t want to end up being in a trap at the airport.”
Saturday night, according to Ho, Snowden was booked on a flight for Moscow. But, afraid he would be ambushed, he stayed put. Edward Snowden spent his 30th birthday considering his options.
Snowden, Ho said, had only one fear. If he were arrested in Hong Kong and made an appeal against extradition, there was no guarantee that he would be granted bail. In that scenario, it was plausible that Snowden would be living day to day in detention without access to his computers or the internet.
“The worst situation would be that he was locked up in a detention center with the computer taken away from him,” said Ho.
Sometime Saturday evening, Snowden made the decision to leave Hong Kong. Ho received a phone call from Jonathan Man Ho-ching, a lawyer with his firm working closely with Snowden, who relayed the news. With the verbal assurance from the ‘intermediary’ Snowden and his team reasoned that even if he was ambushed at the airport and arrested, he would be in the same position – fighting extradition through the Hong Kong courts – as he would eventually be if he stayed.
According to his legal team, Snowden considered several final destinations.
“He knew that if he sought asylum in China he would certainly be welcome but he won’t do it,” said Ho. “Because he knows he is in possession of valuable information. So of course the Chinese, the Russians would welcome him. But that is not the place he wants to go. And he is not prepared to offer any service to any government. He had a sense of mission.”
The route through Moscow to Havana to Ecuador was agreed upon.
His flight to Moscow was booked for Sunday morning. A member of the legal team accompanied Snowden to the airport, reporting back to Ho as he made his way through immigration. Despite the fact the State Department said it revoked Snowden’s passport Saturday, Ho believes he had it in hand as he passed through Hong Kong immigration. On Monday, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said Snowden also carried refugee travel documents from Ecuador, but Ho was unaware of those.
The man whose face was plastered on posters in Hong Kong and broadcast for the past several weeks on newscasts around the world, managed to blend in just long enough to avoid notice.
“No problem at the airport,” said Ho. “He got through the country smoothly like any other passenger.”
Snowden boarded the plane. In the terminal, the legal team member who accompanied Snowden to the airport waited anxiously for takeoff. He wasn’t alone.
“My associate noticed other people, three to four people, keeping a distance,” said Ho, “and close surveillance of the situation.”
Were they government officials? Immigration officers? Ho does not know. He waited for his own phone to ring, to get the all clear that Snowden made it out. Once he did, he says he felt relieved.
Throughout the process, Ho says he never spoke or dealt with any legal or government entity in Beijing, where the mainland Chinese government under Xi Jinping is headquartered. Hong Kong and Beijing maintain separate legal systems under the “two systems, one country” rule, but Beijing maintains a degree of authority. His dealings, he said, were solely in Hong Kong. But he does not discount the influence Beijing may have had.
“I think Beijing is the backseat driver, and the Hong Kong government just pretends to be in control of the wheel sitting on the front seat,” said Ho. “But on the backseat, actually, Beijing is responsible for driving the car.”