By Theresa Tedesco
The tall, lanky American dressed in all black looked familiar. But Ajith, a 44-year-old Sri Lankan refugee seeking asylum in Hong Kong figured the nervous-looking man with the red-rimmed eyes fidgeting in the darkness outside the United Nations building in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon was a U.S. army dodger.
Summoned by his immigration lawyer in the late evening of June 10, 2013, Ajith (last names of the refugees in this story have been withheld), a former soldier in the Sri Lankan military, was told the unidentified man was “famous” and needed “protection.” Little else was revealed except that he would be responsible for covertly moving the American around at a moment’s notice.
“I was very happy to help him,” Ajith recalled during a recent interview with the National Post in his small windowless room in Kennedy Town, on the western tip of Hong Kong Island. “This famous person was a refugee too, same as me.”
Earlier that day, that “famous” 29-year-old walked out of the five-star luxury Hotel Mira in Kowloon and sparked an intensive global manhunt not seen since the search for al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings.
Edward Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence contractor, became the most wanted fugitive in the world after leaking a cache of classified documents to the media detailing extensive cyber spying networks by the U.S. government on its own citizens and governments around the world.
To escape the long arm of American justice, the man responsible for the largest national security breach in U.S. history retained a Canadian lawyer in Hong Kong who hatched a plan that included a visit to the UN sub-office where the North Carolina native applied for refugee status to avoid extradition to the U.S.
Fearing the media would surround and follow Snowden — making it easier for the Hong Kong authorities to arrest the one-time Central Intelligence Agency analyst on behalf of the U.S. — his lawyers made him virtually disappear for two weeks from June 10 to June 23, 2013, before he emerged on an Aeroflot airplane bound for Moscow, where he remains stranded today in self-imposed exile.
“That morning, I had minutes to figure out how to get him to the UN, away from the media, and out of harm’s way with the weight of the U.S. government bearing down on him. I did what I had to do, and could do, to help him,” Robert Tibbo, the whistleblower’s lead lawyer in Hong Kong told the Post in a wide-ranging interview, the first detailing the chaotic days of Snowden’s escape three years ago. “They wanted the data and they wanted to shut him down. Our greatest fear was that Ed would be found.”
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