World News

Lawyer for Snowden in Hong Kong Says He Left City Under Pressure

Posted November 28, 2018 1:51 a.m. EST

HONG KONG — A human rights lawyer who represented the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden when he fled to Hong Kong says pressure from the local authorities, the bar association and legal aid groups have made it impossible for him to keep working in the semiautonomous Chinese city.

The lawyer, Robert Tibbo, is a Canadian national who left Hong Kong last year and is currently living in France. He did not disclose his move for nearly a year, fearing it would harm the cases of his clients in Hong Kong, particularly asylum-seekers who sheltered Snowden during his 2013 stay.

Snowden, who leaked top-secret information on United States surveillance programs that had monitored the communications of hundreds of millions around the world, faces charges in the United States, including two counts under the Espionage Act. He now lives in exile in Russia.

The revelation in September 2016 that Snowden had stayed with asylum-seekers brought international attention to the status of such people in Hong Kong, where they are unable to work, are ineligible for permanent residency and face minuscule odds of being approved for resettlement in a third country.

Tibbo, 54, says he is being punished for bringing international attention to the difficult circumstances asylum-seekers face.

“The bottom line is if I hadn’t helped Mr. Snowden and the refugees, I’d be working in Hong Kong right now,” he said.

But his critics in Hong Kong portray him as a fame-seeker who potentially endangered the asylum-seekers by publicizing their identities.

Tibbo’s disclosure that he has left follows Hong Kong’s expulsion of an editor for the Financial Times in October, the first such move against a foreign journalist in the city. While the cases are very different, they both add to growing concerns about the decline of Hong Kong’s singular status in China as a place where political and civil rights are far more robust than in the rest of the country.

Unlike Victor Mallet, the Financial Times journalist, Tibbo left on his own accord. But he says that he did so because he feared arrest.

“My career is over in Hong Kong,” he said. “I’m unwilling and unable to come back unless I’m sure I will be safe and not get locked up. I want to help my clients, but I can’t do that from jail.”

Tibbo’s problems mushroomed in late 2016 after some asylum-seekers said the Sri Lankan police had come to the city to search for people who had put up Snowden, most of whom were from Sri Lanka.

The Hong Kong police detained several of the same people the Sri Lankan police had questioned, asking them about Snowden, according to Tibbo and one of the detainees, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation by the authorities.

They also asked questions about Tibbo. He said he feared the police were planning to accuse him of persuading the refugees to concoct or distort their statements about the Sri Lankan officers.

The Hong Kong police said they had conducted an investigation, but “the results suggested no evidence supporting any criminal offense and no arrest was made.”

Tibbo also faces complaints to the Hong Kong Bar Association from anonymous lawyers and the Hong Kong Immigration Department.

Two letters signed “Large Group of Exasperated Barristers” accuse Tibbo of endangering the asylum-seekers who sheltered Snowden and undermining their cases by providing their personal information to news outlets and allowing them to be photographed.

The letters also say he contributed to a news story’s “disgraceful touting and hagiography” of himself and criticize him for being photographed with and visiting Snowden in Moscow.

“Our members serve asylum-seekers without going through this process of self-aggrandizement,” said Robert Pang, a vice chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association.

Tibbo said in a written reply to the Bar Association that he was “appalled” it was proceeding on the basis of anonymous complaints, which meant he did not know who exactly was taking issue with him.

Pang dismissed concerns about the lack of names. “The matter is not about who complains against him, it’s about his actions,” he said.

Tibbo also says he has not been getting paid what he is owed by his primary Hong Kong employers, two bodies that arrange legal representation for clients who cannot afford it.

“Suddenly at the same time they stop paying his bills and they basically have bankrupted Tibbo,” said Pascal Paradis, executive director of Lawyers Without Borders Canada, a group that has helped Tibbo.

Tibbo says his problems with the Legal Aid Department, a government body in Hong Kong, began in September 2016, and that they have since offered to pay him half of what they did before.

The department declined to respond to questions, saying it needed Tibbo’s written permission to do so. The other body he worked for, the Duty Lawyer Service, which is publicly funded but has independent operational management, said it would not discuss individual cases.

In addition, Hong Kong’s immigration department sought to have Tibbo removed from many of his cases, including those of the seven Snowden asylum-seekers, citing his requests for extensions in 2016 and 2017. During that period, about 30 cases that had been dormant were reactivated, creating a huge workload that Tibbo said seemed designed to put pressure on him and his clients.

The immigration department said it had streamlined procedures to clear out a backlog of asylum cases that had swelled in recent years.

Despite the complaints from some of Tibbo’s colleagues, his clients describe him as a dedicated advocate for their interests.

“If he is your lawyer, you feel safety,” said Vanessa Mae Bondalian Rodel, an asylum-seeker from the Philippines who took in Snowden in 2013.

Paradis said the confluence of problems that Tibbo faces “are indicative of a big question mark about what is the rationale for all of this.”

In March 2017, the claims of all seven of the asylum-seekers connected to Snowden were rejected. They have appealed.

The Hong Kong government gives a small stipend to asylum-seekers, but since 2016 that has been cut for the Snowden group. Now almost all their immediate needs are covered by For the Refugees, an organization set up to apply for asylum for them in Canada, said Marc-André Séguin, the group’s president.

If Hong Kong rejects their appeal before the Canadian authorities rule, the asylum-seekers could be sent to their home countries, where they could face dire fates. One of them, Ajith Pushpakumara, said he was tortured for deserting the military in Sri Lanka and could face the death penalty if he returns.

“It’s a race against the clock,” Séguin said. “If their Hong Kong application is rejected and they return to their home countries, all the work we’ve done for a visa to Canada becomes moot. It’s essentially death by delay.”