Hong Kong shows two faces of justice
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - One country, two systems - that has been a proud governing mantra for this city's autonomy since the handover from British to Chinese rule 16 years ago. Now, however, a second, far-less-savory formula may apply: one city, two systems of justice.
In the first of those systems, American cyberspy-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden came to Hong Kong seeking refuge from the US government and was celebrated as a hero in the streets and treated with kid gloves for weeks by city officials as he used the media to air sensational revelations of top-secret mass surveillance programs carried out by the US and British governments.
In the end, in the face of extradition demands from the United
States, Snowden was allowed safe passage to Hong Kong International Airport, where he boarded a flight to Moscow, which last week granted him asylum for one year.
In the second example, Libyan dissident-on-the-run Sami al-Saadi in March 2004 sought protection in Hong Kong for himself, his wife and four small children. They were reportedly seized by Hong Kong authorities - acting, he claims, on instructions from the US Central Intelligence Agency and its British counterpart, M16 - and placed on a flight to Tripoli. There, Saadi was promptly imprisoned and tortured by the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
But with the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, Saadi was freed from his Libyan dungeon to tell his story to the world. He has been talking ever since.
Saadi, 47, now threatens to sue the Hong Kong government for its alleged complicity in his secret rendition to Tripoli. The city is considering offering him a HK$26 million (US$3.4 million) settlement to keep the case (and its sordid, cloak-and-dagger details) out of court.
Last December, Saadi accepted a payout for that amount from the British government, and he is likely to take the Hong Kong offer as well. That will make the former political prisoner, almost certainly regarded as a terrorist in Washington and London, a very rich man and keep the damning details of his case out of the Hong Kong courts and media headlines.
But it doesn't mean the city's reputation for transparency and maintaining the rule of law hasn't suffered a terrible blow.
A US$3.4 million settlement would get Hong Kong off the legal hook for allegedly conspiring in a brand of brutal abduction that is euphemistically referred to as "extraordinary rendition". But it would also amount to an admission of guilt and beg the question of how many other suspected terrorists the CIA and M16 have furtively transited through the city with the full support and assistance of Hong Kong officials.
Was Saadi a terrorist? That, of course, depends on who you ask.
In 1988, he fled Libya to join other Libyan exiles opposed to Gaddafi's ruthless 42-year rule, which ended in August 2011 and was followed by the gruesome capture and execution of the 69-year-old dictator two months later.
In the early 1990s, Saadi reportedly received military training in the mountains of Pakistan from groups linked to al-Qaeda and took a nom de guerre, Abu Munthir. This training would earn him a leading role in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whose aim was to overthrow Gaddafi.
By 1993, Saadi and his family were living in the United Kingdom, where they stayed for 10 years. As previously hostile relations between London and Tripoli began to warm, however, the family felt increasingly insecure, and moved in 2003 to Guangzhou, capital of China's southern Guangdong province.
From Guangzhou, Saadi booked a flight for himself and his family from Hong Kong to the Norwegian capital of Oslo, where he planned to ask for political asylum. That plan fell apart during a stopover in Beijing when Saadi, his wife and children were detained at Beijing Capital International Airport for carrying false passports. They were then returned to Hong Kong.
It was back in Hong Kong, Saadi says, that the CIA and M16 took over, holding the family for nearly two weeks, during which he and his wife were repeatedly interrogated. Finally, the family was forced on to a chartered Egypt Air Boeing 777-200 bound for Tripoli and, for Saadi, prison and torture.
If true, this is a terrible stain on Hong Kong's reputation as a free and transparent city adhering stubbornly - even after 16 years as a special administrative region of China - to the rule of law.
Saadi's unfortunate fate seems especially ironic in light of the Snowden affair. A former analyst for the CIA and the US National Security Agency, Snowden is Public Enemy No 1 to American intelligence services, and yet Hong Kong fudged its extradition treaty with the US and allowed him to slip out of the city unimpeded.
For the 30-year-old Snowden, Hong Kong provided a media platform and a temporary bolthole from his pursuers in the US Justice Department. According to Saadi, in his case the city served as back-channel conduit to Gaddafi's shop of horrors in Libya - thanks to help from the CIA, M16 and Hong Kong officials apparently keen to cooperate with the two spy agencies.
The gaping discrepancies in the two cases are telling. In the glare of the global media spotlight on Snowden last June, Hong Kong officials chose not to cooperate with the same American spooks they appear to have gladly aided in the hidden recesses of rendition nine years before.
In an explanation that clearly irked Washington, the Hong Kong government stated that it could not hand over Snowden to the US because the extradition request failed to give his full name and passport number; meanwhile, Snowden, aware that his time was running out in the city, was boarding a flight to Moscow.
To say the least, it is puzzling that, in one case, Hong Kong officials were such sticklers for detail and due process while in another guaranteed legal protections seem to have been entirely ignored.
When the world is watching, the rule of law is trumpeted as a guiding principle for Hong Kong, which likes to regard itself as "Asia's world city."
But what about when the world isn't watching?
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
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