Handelsblatt Exclusive

Hiding Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden and Robert Tibbo source NY Jennifer
Edward Snowden talked with lawyer Robert Tibbo in a hotel in Moscow in late July.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Refugees sheltered Edward Snowden for two weeks in Hong Kong slums when he became the target of an international manhunt in June 2013 before fleeing to Moscow, Handelsblatt learned. People who seek asylum in Hong Kong face desperate circumstances.

  • Facts


    • NSA contractor Edward Snowden went underground for two weeks in Hong Kong in 2013 after disclosing his employer’s secrets.
    • He was hidden by refugees in Kowloon and other neighborhoods at a series of safe houses before fleeing escaping to Moscow, where he remains in exile, a fugitive from U.S. justice.
    • Mr. Snowden and his Hong Kong lawyer are telling the story of his first two weeks on the run to highlight the plight of refugees in Hong Kong, one of Asia’s wealthiest cities which grants asylum to only 0.3 percent of applicants. “Snowden,” a film by U.S. director Oliver Stone, opens this month in Germany and around the world.
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There’s no better place to interview Edward Snowden’s lawyer than Hong Kong’s Mira Hotel, the place where the former NSA contractor first made his revelations. It’s also the hotel where Mr. Snowden was stuck – until he was rescued by Robert Tibbo, the lawyer who sneaked him out of the hotel as the whole world was looking for him.

Accordingly, Handelsblatt’s chief investigative reporter, Sönke Iwersen, was excited as he waited at the Mira to meet the lawyer.

Mr. Tibbo is a Canadian human rights lawyer who worked as a chemical engineer for Monsanto in Australia before retraining. He went to law school in Hong Kong while working as a corporate consultant and now represents thousands of refugees living under miserable conditions in the autonomous Chinese territory.

Mr. Tibbo showed up late as one of clients was being harassed by the local authorities. When he arrived, on a brutally hot day, he sank into the cushioned chair and took a long sip of water, before telling the story of Mr. Snowden, his most famous client – and the plight of those who saved his life.

Handelsblatt: Mr. Tibbo, here we are at the Mira Hotel, where Edward Snowden gave his famous interview. What are your memories of this place where it all began?

Robert Tibbo: I look back at the Mira Hotel as the location where, as Edward’s lawyer, my priority was to have him leave the hotel and not come back.

How did you get Mr. Snowden out of the Mira without anybody recognizing him?

Time was of the essence. It was our priority to move as quickly as possible, before anyone was able to detect Mr. Snowden at the Mira Hotel and his movements from the hotel.

How did you decide find people to help you hide Edward Snowden till he could get out of the country?

I had come to the view that for Edward’s safety and security, it was best placing him in an environment with people that society and the different governments would not even consider looking. And with that approach, I considered having Edward stay with the individuals that are most marginalized in this society, and that would be the asylum-seeker community.

What status do asylum seekers have in Hong Kong? How many are there and how do they live?

Right now there are about 12,000 asylum seekers seeking refuge in Hong Kong. They live in Hong Kong with very limited rights. For example, they are not allowed to work. They are not allowed to do volunteer work. And with the government not providing sufficient assistance asylum seekers are put in a position where they seek a self-remedy such as taking up employment. That’s considered illegal. The consequence of that is, if convicted after trial, a sentence of 22 months, almost two years.

Two years of prison for working so you can feed your family?

Very often you have asylum seekers who don’t have any baby formula, milk powder. There are cases where they need certain medicines which the hospital authority refuses to provide or to pay for. International Social Services, a Swiss organization with a Hong Kong branch, doesn’t provide diapers for example. They don’t necessarily provide milk formula. And the asylum seekers are put in a situation where the Hong Kong Government, through International Social Services, does not provide for full rent. Does not provide for full electricity bills, or gas for cooking. Or water. So, asylum seekers are constantly in a position, on a monthly basis, where there is the threat that they be evicted or their utilities will be cut off.

Did you have to ask around a lot until you found somebody willing to hide Mr. Snowden?

The asylum seekers, they are individuals who have been persecuted, they have been submitted to torture, to cruel and degrading forms of punishment. And they understand what it is to be persecuted. The asylum seekers recognized that Ed was extremely vulnerable. They understood that he was being threatened. They saw him as somebody who was being persecuted for doing a good thing.

So nobody said no, that’s too dangerous for me?

No. They understood that there was someone in need, someone that required help. And the asylum-seeking community has extraordinary individuals who recognized that Mr. Snowden was in a situation that they were previously in. They had fled to Hong Kong to seek refuge here. And as such it was a simple calculation for them that this man needed help. And they were more than willing to help somebody who was in dire circumstances.

What do you remember about Mr. Snowden’s reaction to this kind of help? Help without asking any questions?

That’s really a question for Edward. But I do know that Mr. Snowden is extremely grateful and humbled by the selfless acts of the asylum seekers who took him into their care. He’s extremely grateful for what they did to provide him a safe haven as long as he was in Hong Kong.

All this happened three years ago. How did Edward Snowden’s escape stay secret all this time?

The asylum-seeking community has been in circumstances in their home countries where they have been persecuted. They have been threatened. Many have been captured and tortured and subjected to inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment. They successfully fled these jurisdictions and they did so most often trusting their people to assist them. And they understood that it was important to maintain confidentiality for the safety and security of an individual who was at risk.

Some of the people who helped Mr. Snowden have been seeking asylum for years. Have any of them been accepted by the Hong Kong government?

No. All of my clients have still have not had their cases fully screened or not even commenced screening. This is not due to anything my clients have done or failed to do. It simply and squarely falls on the shoulders of the attitude and the position of the Hong Kong government in initially not even screening asylum seekers up until 2004.

It was due to a court of final decision here that forced the Hong Kong government to put in a screening mechanism for torture claimants. From 2005 to 2008 the Hong Kong government had a screening system in place. But again it took a challenge to the legal court system to the Hong Kong government that exposed that this screening system was an illegal system. It was so grossly unfair. It failed to meet the standard requirements that asylum seekers are entitled to when having their cases screened.

Then from 2010 to 2013, the enhanced screening mechanism was put into place. But after challenges, that enhanced screening mechanism had to be revamped as well. And only in 2014, a unified screening mechanism was put into place. All of these changes were due to the Hong Kong government taking the position that it would not provide full asylum-screening protection to asylum seekers.

All this has left thousands upon thousands of asylum seekers in limbo, having to be rescreened. So most of my clients are still waiting to have their cases screened after many years, and some after more than a decade.

What is the acceptance rate for asylum seekers in Hong Kong?

Almost zero. Many of the refugees come from South East Asia, many from South Asia. In Australia and Canada, the acceptance rates range from 25 to over 50 percent. You have a similar diversity of asylum seekers coming into Hong Kong, under similar circumstances. And yet, the Hong Kong government has screened everybody out, except for 0.3 percent.

That sounds strange, given that Hong Kong is an extremely wealthy place.

The Hong Kong system for refugees is a system that’s been designed and founded on the principle of expediency. The United Nations Committee against Torture has pointed out that the screening system for asylum seekers in Hong Kong has an unusual high threshold. It is designed to reject and refuse asylum seekers’ claims. And at the same time, they have thrown up a massive wall of indifference to the difficulties and hardships and the trauma that the majority of asylum seekers have faced and suffered in their home countries.

With an effective acceptance of zero percent, you have a system that when asylum seekers come in, they learn very quickly that there is no hope. In my view, this is completely at odds with what is expected by such a wealthy and influential jurisdiction and stakeholder in the local community. Quite frankly, it is shameful. A zero acceptance rate is an inherent improbability.

So, in retrospect, Hong Kong was the wrong place for Mr. Snowden to come. After all, if he sought asylum here, he might have been banned from working for years. 

Mr. Snowden was fully advised at the time of the circumstances of this place. For anyone seeking asylum in Hong Kong, this is a jurisdiction where any asylum seeker, if they want to achieve success, they will ultimately have to resort to the higher courts. And that’s not the way it should be. I am not saying that Mr. Snowden would have not succeeded with a claim in Hong Kong. But it is a system that makes it very difficult and it has been designed to discourage legitimate asylum seekers.


Sönke Iwersen is the head of Handelsblatt’s investigative reporting team. To contact the author: iwersen@handelsblatt.com.

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