HONG KONG - The Hong Kong government said that a former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the U.S. for revealing two highly classified surveillance programs has left "on his own accord for a third country."
The U.S. government had contacted authorities in Hong Kong to seek the extradition of Edward Snowden, the former government contractor accused of espionage for leaking classified information about two secret surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency.
Snowden reportedly was en route to Moscow and was planning to fly to Venezuela.
Snowden, who turned 30 on Friday, has been the focus of a criminal investigation since he acknowledged earlier this month that he was the source of materials detailing surveillance programs that collected telephone records for millions of Americans and a separate operation that targeted the Internet communications of non-citizens abroad who were suspected of terrorist connections.
A criminal complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia on June 14 and was unsealed Friday.
Hong Kong said in a statement that it allowed Snowden to leave despite an extradition request from the U.S. because documents provided by the U.S. government did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law," and the U.S. had not yet provided the additional information requested to consider the U.S. request for a provisional arrest warrant.
It said there was no legal basis to stop Snowden from leaving, and the U.S. had been informed of his departure.
Hong Kong also said it had asked the U.S. to clarify reports, based on interviews with Snowden, that the NSA had hacked into computers in Hong Kong and would follow up on the matter "to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong."
The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said it had helped Snowden exit Hong Kong. "Mr. Snowden is currently over Russian airspace accompanied by WikiLeaks legal advisors," the group tweeted.
Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency quoted a source at the Aeroflot airline saying Snowden would fly from Moscow to Cuba on Monday and then take a flight to Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.
Snowden, who was employed by Booz Allen Hamilton as an NSA systems analyst in Hawaii, fled to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong last month with top-secret documents and court orders on government surveillance operations.
A one-page criminal complaint against Snowden was unsealed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., part of the Eastern District of Virginia where his former employer, government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, is headquartered, in McLean. He is charged with unauthorized communication of national defense information, willful communication of classified communications intelligence information and theft of government property. The first two are under the Espionage Act and each of the three crimes carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on conviction.
The complaint is dated June 14, five days after Snowden's name first surfaced as the person who had leaked to the news media that the NSA, in two highly classified surveillance programs, gathered telephone and Internet records to ferret out terror plots.
Snowden told the South China Morning Post in an interview published June 12 on its website that he hoped to stay in the autonomous region of China because he has faith in "the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate."
A prominent former politician in Hong Kong, Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said he doubted whether Beijing would intervene yet.
"Beijing would only intervene according to my understanding at the last stage. If the magistrate said there is enough to extradite, then Mr. Snowden can then appeal," he said.
Lee said Beijing could then decide at the end of the appeal process if it wanted Snowden extradited or not.
If formal extradition is pursued, Snowden could contest it on grounds of political persecution.
Hong Kong lawyer Mark Sutherland said that the filing of a refugee, torture or inhuman punishment claim acts as an automatic bar on any extradition proceedings until those claims can be assessed.
"Some asylum seekers came to Hong Kong 10 years ago and still haven't had their protection claims assessed," Sutherland said.
Hong Kong lawmakers said Saturday that the Chinese government should make the final decision on whether Snowden should be extradited to the United States.
James Hon, a leader of the League in Defence of Hong Kong's Freedom, said, "If [Snowden] has left, that would be good news... because you don't know what the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government together are going to do to him."
Hon, whose group participates in many opposition protests in Hong Kong, added, "I wish him luck."