HONG KONG (Reuters) - A few hundred rights advocates and political activists marched through Hong Kong on Saturday to demand protection for Edward Snowden, who leaked revelations of U.S. electronic surveillance and is now believed to be holed up in the former British colony.
Marchers gathered outside the U.S. consulate shouting slogans denouncing alleged spying operations aimed at China and Hong Kong, but the numbers were modest compared to rallies over other rights and political issues.
“Arrest Obama, free Snowden,” protesters shouted outside the slate grey building as police looked on. Many waved banners that said: “Betray Snowden, betray freedom”, “Big brother is watching you” and “Obama is checking your email”.
In his first comments on Snowden’s case, Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying said late on Saturday that the government would handle it in accordance with established laws.
“When the relevant mechanism is activated, the Hong Kong SAR Government will handle the case of Mr Snowden in accordance with the laws and established procedures of Hong Kong,” he said.
“Meanwhile, the government will follow up on any incidents related to the privacy or other rights of the institutions or people in Hong Kong being violated.”
Some protesters blew whistles in support of Snowden, 29, the American former CIA contractor who has acknowledged being behind leaks of the surveillance programs by the National Security Agency.
The procession moved on to government headquarters in the city, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 but enjoys far more liberal laws on dissent and freedom of expression.
About a dozen groups organized two rallies, including the city’s two largest political camps. Leaders of major political parties sought explanations for Snowden’s allegations of spying.
Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing political party, the DAB, demanded an apology from Washington, clarification of “illegal” espionage activities and an immediate halt to them.
“I think the Hong Kong government should protect him,” the DAB’s vice-chairwoman, Starry Lee, said outside the consulate.
Snowden reportedly flew to Hong Kong on May 20. He checked out of a luxury hotel on Monday and his whereabouts remain unknown. Snowden has said he intends to stay in Hong Kong to fight any potential U.S. moves to extradite him.
China has avoided any explicit comment on its position towards Snowden. A senior source with ties to the Communist Party leadership said Beijing was reluctant to jeopardize recently improved ties with Washington.
Snowden told the South China Morning Post this week that Americans had spied extensively on targets including the Chinese University of Hong Kong that hosts an exchange which handles nearly all the city’s domestic web traffic. Other alleged targets included government officials, businesses and students.
Snowden pledged not to “hide from justice” and said he would place his trust in Hong Kong’s legal system. Some legal experts, however, say an extradition treaty between Hong Kong and the United States has functioned smoothly since 1998.
It is unclear whether Chinese authorities would intervene over any U.S. attempts to extradite Snowden, though lawyers say Beijing has rarely interfered with extradition cases.
His arrival comes at a sensitive time for Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying, whose popularity has sunk since taking office last year amid a series of scandals and corruption probes into prominent figures. Leung has offered no comment on Snowden.
Interest among residents into the case is growing and numbers could rise if extradition proceedings are launched.
Demonstrations on issues ranging from denunciations of pro-communist education policy imposed by Beijing, high property prices and a growing wealth gap have attracted large crowds.
A vigil marking the anniversary of China’s June 1989 crackdown on democracy advocates drew tens of thousands this month and a record 180,000 last year.
Diplomats and opposition figures in the city have warned of growing behind-the-scenes meddling by Beijing in Hong Kong’s affairs, as well as deep-rooted spying activities.
Additional reporting by James Pomfret and Anne-Marie Roantree; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Ron Popeski and Michael Perry