Edward Snowden’s Warning Cry

Those who helped the famed refugee escape from Hong Kong are paying a heavy price

Former CIA contractor Edward Snowden and those who helped him escape through Hong Kong in 2013 continue to pay a high price for his revelations, which shined a bright light on the western world’s surveillance practices. US President Donald Trump says he would like to see the 36-year-old Snowden executed and he has since faced accusations that he is a Russian spy. 

Five of the seven “angels,“ as they became known after Oliver Stone’s 2016 film on Snowden, remain in limbo in Hong Kong. They are Supun Kellapatha and his wife, Nadeeka Nonis, who met in the territory after they both fled persecution and abuse in Sri Lanka over their political opinions, and their two children. 

Snowden also found refuge with Ajith Pushpa Kumara, an ex-soldier who is also seeking asylum. They all aided Snowden at the request of Robert Tibbo, a human rights lawyer who has faced his own problems over his association with Snowden.

The five have been refused political asylum and remain in danger of being sent back to Sri Lanka. Filipina Vanessa Rodel and her daughter Keana also helped until he was able to leave the territory. Rodel and her daughter Keana were able to move to Canada with Tibbo’s help in March 2019. 

Snowden, who remains in a self-imposed exile in Moscow to escape prosecution, spoke on December 1, 2019 with Steffen Arora, a reporter with the German newspaper Der Standard about the need to fight on in an interview that was published in German and has never been translated into English until now. It has been made available to Asia Sentinel in the hope that it could reach an English-language audience. 

“This is retaliation,” Snowden told Der Standard about the authorities’ treatment of the people who sheltered him in Hong Kong. 

Tibbo was one of those Snowden reached out to when the fugitive arrived in Hong Kong in 2013 with his cargo of revelations of spying on common citizens. He has fought for the rights of many asylum seekers who live pariahs’ existence in Hong Kong with next to no chance of their status being recognized and being allowed to lead a normal life there. The lawyer saw Snowden as another refugee who needed help. 

All seven were put under surveillance, followed and questioned by authorities when it became known that they had aided Snowden. After years of delays, immigration authorities finally took up their asylum cases again but at this point, no action has been taken.  

“They were warm, welcoming and kind. When I had fallen to the bottom of the world, they helped me up without giving a damn about who I was,” Snowden told the newspaper. In the current political climate, loaded with the fear of outsiders, Snowden said, he holds the refugees’ actions in even higher regard. “Their example, their humanity, it gave me a reason to keep fighting.”  

“There’s a machine behind it” 

Snowden sees the refugees’ treatment and his own as telling. “You can’t look at something like this without getting a sense that the mask has dropped, and behind all the pretense of civility and process we like to believe governs our little day to day, there’s a machine behind it that would burn everything we love to the ground without a tear if it meant making a problem go away.”

Snowden is convinced it’s no coincidence that those who helped him are now being targeted. “They’re worried about the example of these families, the symbol their moral choice represents. Anybody can look at this situation and see at a glance who is right and who is wrong.” 

But if the “big governments” manage to rewrite this story with an unhappy ending for those involved, they will also succeed in changing the positive message of his work with a single blow, Snowden warns. He says he doesn’t know how far state institutions would go to achieve this, “but they’ve already gone too far.” 

Refugees, lawyer under pressure 

Tibbo remains under pressure from the Hong Kong Bar Association and was forced to leave Hong Kong under diplomatic protection, leaving the seven behind. Effectively in exile, he continues working for his clients, who live in constant fear of deportation. No country wants to take them in. Even Canada, which showed willingness to do so back in 2016, taking in the Rodels, appears to have wilted in the face of pressure from abroad. 

“Death by delay” is how lawyers such as Pascal Paradis from the NGO Lawyers Without Borders, which has been working on the case, describe this process. Snowden himself, fleeing US authorities, was left stranded in Moscow. 

In fact, Snowden said he was aiming for Latin America. “The Department of State failed to cancel my passport in time to keep me from leaving Hong Kong. But once they realized I was in the air en route to Latin America, they made public announcements to put every government around the world on notice that they intended to block my freedom of movement.” 

No asylum in Austria 

When he landed in Moscow for a stopover, he told Der Standard, he was stuck and unable to travel further. All of his asylum applications in Europe were rejected, including by Austria. “This more than anything else is what prevents me from leaving Russia,” Snowden said in response to his critics. “If major powers of Europe can be induced by this or that secret promise to be violators of the asylum right rather than its guarantor, you can’t help but question the whole system. If you can’t count on a right now, can you count on a law?” 

Manfred Nowak, an Austrian human rights lawyer who served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture from 2004 to 2010. sees the danger. 

“Democracy as a form of government is increasingly coming under pressure, as we can see in the US, Great Britain, Hungary, Poland or Italy,” Nowack said. “These countries are governed by populists who came to power through democratic channels, but are now attacking democracy.” Nowak sees Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, as a particularly stark example of a fascist being voted in to lead a democracy.  

Nowak stresses the importance of learning from history: Free elections have destroyed democracies time and time again. “Strident democracies” urgently need to defend themselves against “pseudo- democracies,” he says, pointing to leaders such as Trump, Viktor Orban and Bolsonaro. 

The western world is currently experiencing a backlash, meaning human rights defenders must go on the offensive, Nowak says. “Everyone must do their bit,” he warns emphatically. “Otherwise it could be too late.” 

Nowak sees this backlash in Austria too, where the center-right and far-right are governing in coalition. “Measures are being taken which are being seen, and therefore criticized, as restrictions on the constitutional state, democracy and human rights.” 

Nowak has first-hand experience of the conditions in Hong Kong, where the seven migrants are currently stuck. He trained lawyers there; Tibbo was one of his students. 

Nowak says he knew the Hong Kong Bar Association, which is putting the Canadian lawyer under pressure and sabotaging his mandate for the refugees, as an “independent institution.” He can only assume the bar’s current treatment of Tibbo is a result of “enormous pressure from outside.” 

Snowden has called on his supporters not to give up on the fight for a free world. And above all the fight for those who helped him. “Take a look at the world. Before long, we’ll all feel like refugees.” 

This is being published simultaneously by Vanson Soo, a Hong Kong-based business intelligence specialist with a risk-mitigation consultancy practice. He blogs at https://shhhcretly.com/