Seven years after what can only be described as an act of kindness, the people who helped former CIA contractor Edward Snowden escape through Hong Kong continue to be bedeviled by authorities and remain in a kind of limbo, with two of the seven in Canada stranded by the Covid-19 crisis and the others in Hong Kong, hoping eventually to join them.
Snowden in 2013 copied and leaked a huge disclosure of National Security Agency classified information, revealing numerous global surveillance programs run with the cooperation of domestic telecoms companies and European governments in contravention of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. His disclosures forced the US government to tighten its surveillance procedures and started a national discussion of US surveillance secrecy. For his troubles, he remains radioactive.
Those who aided him – and the lawyer who represented them – have paid for their sanctuary. Those who remain in Hong Kong are Sri Lankans Supun Kellapatha and his wife, Nadeeka Nonis, who met in the territory after they both fled persecution and abuse over their political opinions, and their two children. The fifth is Ajith Pushpa Kumara, an ex-soldier who is also seeking asylum.
According to Robert Tibbo, the human rights lawyer who has represented them since their arrival in Hong Kong, there is hope that they will be allowed into Canada soon although there has been no official statement. The other two are Filipina Vanessa Rodel and her daughter Keana, who have since managed to make it out of Hong Kong with Tibbo’s help, and who is continuing to try to help her in Montreal, where she has almost no resources and only a rudimentary grasp of French.
Those in indeterminate state in Hong Kong are part of 14,000 forgotten refugees who are part of a depressing larger story, of people vainly spending years seeking asylum on claims of torture or other physical dangers in their home countries. About 60 percent are from South Asia. Almost none of their complaints are sustained by authorities, no matter how valid. They remain largely a forgotten class, largely unable to work in the formal economy, most of them poverty-stricken in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
Their plight has been exacerbated by protests that wracked the city for weeks last year, followed by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Tibbo, in a Skype conversation from Canada.
“The five still in Hong Kong are waiting for Canada to make a final decision, which has taken longer than expected,” he said. “The protests have retraumatized them, Covid-19 also.”
Nor are Vanessa Rodel and her daughter much better off. Rodel fled the Philippines ahead of violence in 2002 and spent years helping refugees herself until the day Tibbo delivered Snowden to her for safekeeping. After she saw his story in local media, she told other media: "Oh my God, the most wanted man in the world is in my house."
In March 2019, Rodel and her daughter landed in Montreal speaking no French and with no resources beyond funds from a private sponsor that dried up as the coronavirus took its toll.
“I was so happy and grateful as being newly arrived refugees to Canada and being a single mother this would help us so much as we are still settling into Canada and are both at school every day studying French,” Rodel said. “As they had promised, in early April ‘For The Refugees’ starting supporting us for the second year. Suddenly, shortly after that, they told me they are stopping all support. I was so shocked and scared. The sponsor did this in the middle of the Global Covid-19 pandemic. Both my daughter and I are at home as schools are closed and I need to care for her. I have no job and I feared getting sick. We have no other family in Canada.
She was left with zero dollars in her pockets, the private sponsor had stopped supporting them, so they were left in a terrible situation, Tibbo said, “so we reached out to a group of friends to see if they could do a fundraiser. We are partway to that goal [of C$50,000].”
Vanessa and her daughter “did a tremendous thing,” Tibbo said. “If the US government or Chinese authorities knew where Snowden was, they would have grabbed him. So she did an extraordinary thing, she took him in. My view is that it would be unconscionable for this mother and daughter to be left destitute once again. They have been destitute in Hong Kong for the past 15 years.”
In addition to the help the seven provided to Snowden, who called them “unfailingly kind and generous people [who] came through with charitable grace” in providing refuge for him until he could leave Hong Kong, the five have been refused political asylum locally despite living there for years, and although there are indications the Canadian authorities will allow them refuge, there is always the danger of being sent back to Sri Lanka.
Snowden, who remains in self-imposed exile in Moscow to escape prosecution by the US government, wrote in his book Permanent Record, published in 2019, that “the solidarity they showed me was not political, it was human, and I will be forever in their debt. They didn’t care who I was, or what dangers they might face by helping me, only that there was a person in need. They knew all too well what it meant to be forced into a mad escape from mortal threat, having survived ordeals far in excess of anything I’d dealt with and hopefully ever will: torture by the military, rape, and sexual abuse. They let an exhausted stranger into their homes, and when they saw my face on TV, they didn’t falter. Instead, they smiled and took the opportunity to reassure me of their hospitality.”
It is unsure how much of the lack of action in their pursuit of Hong Kong and Canadian asylum is due to the fact that they had sheltered Snowden, who seven years later remains one of the world’s most wanted fugitives, exemplified by the fact that other countries participated in the extraordinary diversion of the presidential airplane of Bolivian President Evo Morales, which was forced to land in Austria in 2013 after leaving Russia because US authorities thought Snowden might be aboard
“This is retaliation,” Snowden told the German newspaper 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 helped Snowden escape from his original hotel in the city. According to Snowden in his book, to have been his client “is to be his friend for life. He is an idealist and a crusader, a tireless champion for lost causes,” fighting for the rights of asylum seekers until he was forced out of the territory.
All seven of Tibbo’s clients were put under surveillance, followed and questioned by authorities when it became known that they had aided Snowden. Éverything that has happened to the clients has been indirect,” he said, so it’s not possible to tell definitively if the US and Chinese governments are behind the pressure.
“They are all clearly incredibly vulnerable, persecuted by both their home countries and Hong Kong, which tried to remove me as their attorney of record. The authorities [illegally] allowed the Sri Lankan [Criminal Investigation Department] to go for my clients. I pointed out to the police, why not ask Hong Kong Immigration for the names of all Sri Lankans who entered the city at that time. The police refused. The police ended up coming after me. So where did the pressure come from?”
Snowden, in an earlier interview with the German press, said he 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.”