Hong Kong has washed its hands. On Sunday, the Hong Kong government allowed former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to board a Moscow-bound Aeroflot flight, saying it had no legal basis to hold him. Snowden “left Hong Kong today (June 23) on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel,” the government said. Although Snowden’s final destination was unclear it does seem certain his flight landed in Moscow Sunday afternoon. Ecuador's foreign minister confirmed via Twitter that Snowden had requested asylum. Earlier, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported that, according to a source, Snowden was going to fly to Cuba and then Venezuela.
“He chose such a complex route in the hope that he will not be detained and he will be able to reach his ultimate destination—Venezuela—unhindered. Thus he is to make a total of three flights: Hong Kong—Moscow, Moscow—Havana, Havana—Caracas," the source said.
Reuters also hears word from an Aeroflot source that Snowden will be going to Venezuela. Snowden is being helped by anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which posted a statement Sunday saying that Snowden “is bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.” Snowden is flying with Sarah Harrison, Julian Assange’s closest adviser, reports the Washington Post.
Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong amounts to a big blow to the United States that had been pressuring Hong Kong to turn him over to law enforcement officials. The Hong Kong government said in its statement that while the United States had made a legal request to turn over Snowden, it “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law.” Hong Kong asked for more information from the United States but until it receives it, “there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.” The government did not say what additional information it needed.
News that Hong Kong let Snowden leave on a technicality “appears to be a pragmatic decision aimed at avoiding a drawn out extradition battle,” notes the Associated Press. “The move swiftly eliminates a geopolitical headache that could have left it facing pressure from both Washington and Beijing.”
This post has been updated with new information since it was originally published.