How Hong Kong's vulnerable, reviled refugee community saved Edward Snowden

When Edward Snowden flew to Hong Kong with thumb-drives full of damning US government documents, he assumed his freedom was forfeit: he didn't even make an escape plan.

But after the explosive revelations of mass, illegal US spying, people around the world determined that they would save Snowden from the fate of Chelsea Manning: years of torture, decades of imprisonment. Among them was a Canadian human rights lawyer, Robert Tibbo, who had represented many of the teeming masses of refugees crammed into Hong Kong's asylum-seeker ghetto. Tibbo and his clients shuttled Snowden from shanty to shack to cramped apartment for days, hiding him in plain sight in Kowloon's Lai Chi Kok district among Vietnamese, Indonesian, Filipino, African and Sri Lankan asylum seekers who endure years of grinding poverty in their bid to make new lives away from their home countries.

Canada's National Post conducted a long, wide-ranging interview with Tibbo about Snowden's unlikely escape, filling in the blanks with information from Wikileaks volunteers, other lawyers, Laura Poitras, and Snowden himself. The tale of the vulnerable people who selflessly hid Snowden is the main meat of the story, but perhaps more salient — given the oft-repeated smear that Snowden was a Russian spy — is the story of how Snowden ended up in Moscow.

Sarah Harrison, a British Wikileaks staffer and close confidante of Assange, flew to Hong Kong from Australia and consulted with Snowden's lawyers. She purchased more than a dozen airline tickets to different destinations, including Iceland, Cuba and India, to confuse U.S., Chinese and Hong Kong officials monitoring the airport, despite having received "neutral to a green-light" from the city-state's government allowing Snowden to leave unhindered. Meanwhile, Assange, who was in self-exile at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, worked his connections with South American governments to obtain diplomatic protection for the young American.

On June 23, Tibbo drove Snowden and Harrison to Hong Kong International Airport. During that journey, Snowden, who had just met his travelling companion from Wikileaks for the first time, seemed unusually nervous. The pair posed as a young couple headed on a vacation. Leaving little to chance, Man simultaneously bought a ticket to Shanghai to get access to the boarding gates in the event Snowden encountered problems before boarding the plane. Tibbo waited at the Immigration department at the airport. Unlike the early days, this escape was meticulously planned.

"We tried our best to avoid surveillance," Man recalled. "Looking back, we must have been crazy. We understood the danger, but we didn't think much about it. Luckily, it turned out successfully."

How Snowden Escaped [Theresa Tedesco/National Post]

(Image: Supun and Nadeeka let Edward Snowden hide in their home in Lai Chi Kok; Jayne Russell for National Post)