by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) June 24, 2013
China on Monday sidestepped allegations it orchestrated the departure of former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden from Hong Kong, which infuriated Washington after it had requested his arrest and extradition.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying refused to directly comment on the affair at a regular press briefing in Beijing, or provide details on any role Beijing played in Snowden's flight to Moscow on Sunday.
"The central government of China always respects the Hong Kong SAR government's handling of the relevant case," she said, referring reporters to Hong Kong's statement Sunday which said he departed through "legal and normal means".
Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy under the handover agreement that governed its transfer from British rule in 1997, but Beijing retains control over its defence and foreign policy, and the right to veto extradition decisions.
Analysts have speculated that Beijing intervened in Snowden's case, due to its potential to create a drawn-out legal saga that would strain relations between the US and China.
US Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said Hong Kong's decision to allow the former CIA agent to leave came as a "very big surprise".
"China clearly had a role in this, in my view. I don't think this was just Hong Kong without Chinese acquiescence, she said on CBS's "Face the Nation" programme.
Hong Kong lawmaker Albert Ho, who acted as Snowden's lawyer in the city, said on Monday he suspected that Beijing had engineered the exit.
"The Hong Kong government has no power to decide or say anything whatsoever," said the respected pro-democracy figure.
Snowden is expected to head for asylum in Ecuador, in a dramatic flight after Washington charged him with espionage over his leaks on a global spying and hacking programme.
His shock departure has disappointed rights advocates in the southern Chinese city, after he initially said he would stay and fight extradition in what would have been an important test for Hong Kong's judicial independence.
H.K. chief defends handling of Snowden affair
Leung broke his long silence on the affair to amplify a government statement issued on Sunday when Snowden dramatically flew out of Hong Kong, escaping a US arrest warrant.
The city government's chief executive noted "expressions of displeasure" from some in the United States, but told reporters that "the people of Hong Kong expect Hong Kong to uphold its own laws including the Basic Law".
The Basic Law is capitalist Hong Kong's mini-constitution guiding its "one country, two systems" form of autonomy under the rule of communist China.
Leung did not answer when asked if he had received any special instructions on the Snowden case from Beijing, which retains ultimate control over Hong Kong's foreign and defence policy, and the power to veto extradition requests.
But he said: "Under the one country, two systems, of course we surely need to communicate with the central government and discuss events that are related to foreign affairs."
Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency, is wanted by the United States on theft and espionage charges after he fled to Hong Kong in late May and began leaking details of NSA programmes.
He flew to Moscow on Sunday, reportedly heading to a third country, despite Washington having requested his arrest and eventual extradition from Hong Kong. Leung's government said the US paperwork was deficient and it had no legal basis to prevent Snowden leaving.
That decision provoked fury in Washington and Leung said he "understood" US complaints against Hong Kong. But the city had not received any notification that Snowden's passport had been voided by the US State Department, he said.
Some lawmakers in the Chinese territory are concerned at the possibility of US reprisals, such as a withdrawal of visa-free access to the United States for Hong Kongers.
Leung tried to defuse concerns about fallout on the relationship.
"I personally treasure relations between Hong Kong and the United States on various aspects," he stressed.
"I believe our friends in the United States, including government officials and in the business sector, treasure their relations with Hong Kong."
Leung recently went on a trade-promotion trip to New York, where he repeatedly refused to answer questions about Snowden during an interview with Bloomberg TV on June 12.
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