Today—on his 30th birthday, no less—Edward Snowden was charged with espionage by the United States for leaking information about government surveillance programs. It’s a crime punishable by death, though it’s rare that a prosecutor seeks the maximum penalty.
The US government has asked authorities in Hong Kong, where Snowden is believed to be located, to arrest him, according to the Washington Post. Update: NBC News is reporting that the charges against Snowden “were delayed because the United States and authorities in Hong Kong have been going back and forth to make certain that whatever charges the U.S. filed would conform to the extradition treaty with Hong Kong.”
While it’s possible that Snowden could fight his extradition from Hong Kong on the grounds of political asylum, taking his case all the way to Hong Kong’s highest court, he’s almost certain to lose. As an unnamed lawyer told the Wall Street Journal, “Hong Kong is the worst place in the world for any person to avoid extradition, with the possible exception of the United Kingdom.”
That said, Snowden’s case is not entirely hopeless. There is always the possibility that Chinese authorities will deem him too valuable to give up. As Jake Maxwell Watts wrote for Quartz earlier this month:
What if Beijing wants to know what Snowden knows? It may not want to turn away an NSA contractor who is an intelligence gold mine, especially one who claims that he had access to “the full rosters of everyone working at the NSA, the entire intelligence community, and undercover assets all around the world, the locations of every station they have, what their missions are and so forth.”
Of course, if Snowden decided to trade his knowledge for asylum, the charges against him probably wouldn’t remain merely espionage for long—and the penalties for treason are even harsher.