Late on a Friday afternoon before the first weekend of summer, some news out of the Department of Justice: Edward Snowden has been formally charged with espionage. Moreover, the United States government has asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden, the first step in the process to extradite him to face charges. Not a pleasant 30th birthday present for the NSA leaker.
The Washington Post reports on the announcement.
Snowden was charged with espionage, theft and conversion of government property, the officials said.
The complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, a jurisdiction where Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, is headquartered, and a district with a long track record in prosecuting cases with national security implications.
Depending on the number of counts in the complaint — which is sealed — Snowden faces a wide array of possible punishments. Under certain conditions, espionage convictions could warrant the death penalty. The "theft and conversion" charges certainly relate to Snowden taking files from the NSA; "conversion" is a legal term meaning to use someone else's property as your own. Such charges also vary in possible punishment, but are felonies.
Now that the complaint has been filed, the U.S. government has 60 days to file an indictment with the court in Hong Kong to ask that Snowden be extradited for trial. (We outlined the full process earlier this week.) A court in Hong Kong would then have to agree to the extradition, but Snowden has the right to appeal. In a separate Post article, the paper reported that Snowden could be jailed "at the Lai Chi Kok maximum-security facility in Kowloon, where conditions are harsh."
Snowden's final option is to apply for asylum from either Hong Kong or another country, like Iceland. Earlier today, an Icelandic businessman said he had a plane waiting at the Hong Kong airport to take Snowden to that country. He might want to get the engine running.