LATE LAST WEEK, Robert Tibbo got a call from the Hong Kong Police who confirmed that the immigration department was not investigating a case that is considered a major embarrassment to the global financial hub. It reportedly involves crime-department officials from Sri Lanka on a clandestine visit to Hong Kong to snoop on—or do worse to—asylum seekers and refugees who had fled a decades-old ethnic war in the island nation. Their primary targets were the men and women of Lankan origin who had sheltered the American whistleblower and former CIA contractor Edward Snowden while he was on the run in 2013 following the biggest ever intelligence breach in US history.
Tibbo, a Canadian barrister, specialises in refugee rights and works in Hong Kong among destitute asylum seekers, most of whom have escaped torture and sexual harassment in their countries of origin—the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, among them. It was he who had helped Snowden find shelter in the hectic 12 days that the whistleblower spent in the autonomous island-city of China after he leaked a huge cache of classified US military secrets to the media. Prior to that, after leaving for Hong Kong from Hawaii airport, Snowden had stayed for three weeks at two hotels, the Icon and the Mira. But after making his sensational disclosure, it was no longer safe for him to stay at the Mira, a luxury hotel on Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. As Tibbo says, Snowden needed sanctuary in the most unlikely of places.
After leaving The Mira, fearing surveillance and the possibility of being abducted and renditioned by the US or other governments, Snowden was packed off by Tibbo to the Lai Chi Kok and Sham Shui Po areas of Kowloon with different families of asylum seekers. For almost a week, he stayed with Supun Kellapatha, Nadeeka Nonis and their daughter, who lived in a dark and grungy apartment. It helped that popular support was in favour of Snowden in Hong Kong, especially after he told filmmaker Laura Poitras and The Guardian’s Glen Greenwald that the US had been illegally spying on China and various other countries, besides its own citizens. Snowden had to remain indoors at all times, since detection of his presence was deemed too risky.
Soon, however, the lawyers and Snowden as well as Kellapatha’s family got nervous over what they sensed as a heightened police presence in the area. It was time to move Snowden elsewhere, immediately. Almost penniless, Kellapatha had come to Hong Kong in 2005 from Colombo, and had been last screened for asylum in 2012. Before he was escorted away to a safe place, Snowden had left a $200 bill with Nonis and hugged her. That was the last time the family saw Snowden in person.
Tibbo, who is highly trusted by asylum seekers, had also placed Snowden in a crammed flat in Sham Shui Po owned by Vanessa Rodel, who is now in her forties and whose child’s father is of Sinhalese ethnicity. She had come to the city from the Philippines in 2002 to work as a domestic helper and had overstayed after her work visa expired, leading to her arrest. She was first screened for asylum in 2011. Tibbo won’t reveal other details about her, except that she has never been married. Neither does he say why she had to flee her country. Snowden also spent time in the care of Ajith Puspakumara, a former soldier in the Sri Lankan army who had fled from torture and sought refuge in Hong Kong in 2003. He had been interviewed for asylum protection before 2008, and has been under screening without any result since then. All of them were Tibbo’s clients.
It was on June 23rd, 2013, that Tibbo and his instructing solicitor Jonathan Man helped Snowden escape Hong Kong. Man booked a ticket overseas and entered Hong Kong airport to assist Snowden and Wikileaks member Sarah Harrison, who would be flying out with the world’s most wanted fugitive. She was an employee of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks who is now holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in the UK. Assange, who had been through a similar experience, also pulled whatever strings he could to help Snowden. Tibbo positioned himself near the immigration desks in case a crisis arose. At that point, Snowden was not yet a wanted man in Hong Kong. “He left the airport unhindered… it sounds simple and straightforward now, but we didn’t know what would happen 60 minutes from then,” recalls Tibbo.
Snowden got stuck in Moscow on his way to Ecuador after the US invalidated his passport. He was trapped for weeks in Sheremetyevo International Airport, after which Russia offered him political asylum. The man who leaked thousands of classified documents of America’s National Security Agency spy programme now lives in self-imposed exile.
“Snowden is very much concerned about them, his guardian angels,” declares Tibbo, seated in his cramped office in Wan Chai on the 13th floor of a run- down building with a creaky elevator. The narrow entrance to Wayson Commercial House building on Lockhart Road is easy to miss; I had to walk back to look for number 68-70, realising that I was past 74 Lockhart Road, a street just a few minutes from the crowded Wan Chai train station. I had reached 10 minutes before our scheduled appointment and, standing behind one of his assistants who opened the door, Tibbo called out: “I will meet you 10 minutes later, as we had agreed. Now I am in a meeting.” I would realise later that he wasn’t being brusque, but there was no spare room in his office to seat visitors. All work is done around a spacious table.
At exactly 1:30 pm, having stood by the roadside for a few minutes, I am called in to meet Tibbo. He makes room for me to sit facing him with all the skill of an event manager. Besides him, there are three others present. Vanessa Rodel has a beatific expression on her face as Tibbo introduces me to her, and then she breaks into a warm smile. She is thinner and paler than she appears in photos that have appeared in the news media around the world. “I spoke to Snowden this morning,” says Tibbo, a chemical engineer who later took up law and has practised in many parts of the world, as he introduces me to two others in the room, one of them an assistant of Jonathan Man. I sense that I have walked into a sombre discussion. Tibbo is queasy about flying to Europe that evening on a teaching assignment. Despite repeated pleas to immigration authorities that the screening tests (which, the lawyer says, are de facto deportation hearings) of his four clients —Snowden’s angels—be held while he is in Hong Kong, they have fallen on dates he will be away. All his other clients have got dates when Tibbo is in town. The coincidence is disturbing.
Various Hong Kong Immigration officials that Open spoke to on condition of anonymity confide that the acceptance rate of refugee claims has been less than 1 per cent over the past 25 years. Worse, they state that screening interviews are brief and incomplete, a perfunctory exercise at best. Immigration officials didn’t respond to specific questions sent by Open, except for a terse message: ‘Your e-mail has been forwarded to our relevant section.’ Argues Tibbo, “With the Hong Kong government ignoring my clients’ cases for so many years, there was absolutely no urgency to hold screening interviews on such short notice when the immigration department knew months in advance that I was not available until after mid-April 2017.”
There is a mild knock, and one of Tibbo’s assistants opens the door. It is Ajith Puspakumara. Though I have seen his face in the media before, the first things I notice now are his tattooed arms and drooping shoulders. He refuses to enter the room—in a smattering of English—despite Tibbo asking him repeatedly. Puspakumara gestures to Rodel that he will come later, probably because he wasn’t expecting an interview with a journalist. As he leaves, Tibbo says, “He is out there guarding me.” He pauses and adds, “Actually, no. I am kidding.”
Meanwhile, the fact that Sri Lankan officers reached Hong Kong to keep an eye on refugees from their autonomous region doesn’t surprise some of the police officers who spoke to Open. After all, mainland China—one of Sri Lanka’s staunchest allies— routinely dispatches its officers to Hong Kong to spy on dissidents. “Considering the friendship the Chinese have with the Lankans, none of this comes as a rude shock. Yet, if such a thing had happened and our government is silent on it, it is an unpatriotic thing to do,” says a senior official who asks not to be named, disappointed that Hong Kong often fails to uphold its autonomy. The Sri Lankans have maintained that their officers were ‘off duty’ in Hong Kong. For his part, Tibbo says, “The only thing I can consider [about this whole incident] is that Hong Kong is a place where the local government has allowed and has not held accountable other governments who come in here to investigate people and remove them from Hong Kong unlawfully. For example, the Chinese government has many times since the late 1990s been grabbing people they feel are inconvenient to their interests… many billionaires and publishers are taken back to China.”
TIBBO HAD TO cut short his visit to Europe and rush back to Hong Kong to intervene in this expedited process of asylum screening. He and a team of Canadian lawyers based in Montreal, Canada, have filed refugee claims there for the families with pleas to Canada in the face of what he terms “utter disregard” for the rights of his four clients. Questions emailed to Canada’s minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen by Open went unanswered. Now that Hong Kong’s Director of Immigration has asked all ‘the Snowden Refugee Families’ to contact the police to complain against the Sri Lankan snoops, the families will soon be asking the police to investigate the incident for the third time, Tibbo offers. “The applications of the three families for refugee status in Canada continue to progress,” he adds.
But life for these former protectors of Snowden has been getting more difficult. A university professor who has closely watched refugee claims in Hong Kong tells me that, often, the autonomous region does not directly ask asylum seekers to leave, but makes conditions so tough that they leave of their own volition. Many of them have come here braving all kinds of cruelty: from torture and slavery to rape. But the woes of some do not seem to end. Tibbo explains that the legal term for this is ‘constructive refoulement’.
The Hong Kong branch of the Geneva-headquartered International Social Services (ISSHK), hired by the government to offer humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers here, has suddenly refused to pay the rent and utilities charges—as is the usual practice—on behalf of Kellapatha and Nonis, who have recently moved to another flat. ISSHK staff made efforts to convince Nonis to have an abortion in 2015 when she was pregnant with Dinath, who was born in April 2016. However, ISSHK case officers never informed the father of these efforts, says Tibbo. Their five-year-old daughter was kicked out of school last November after the Education Bureau failed to pay her school fees. Ironically, asylum seekers like them cannot work in Hong Kong. If caught in a job, they face a jail sentence of 22 months and 2 weeks, even if it is volunteer work. Tibbo says that ISSHK has refused to provide any humanitarian assistance to the Supuns, except for food and transport.
In response to a detailed questionnaire emailed to ISSHK, its communications and PR manager Connie Hui declines to comment on ‘individual cases’, citing privacy concerns. She states, ‘ISSHK strenuously denies the following allegations: that ISSHK was in breach of its obligations towards eligible non-refoulement claimants in providing sufficient humanitarian assistance in accordance with the agreement on provision of assistance for non-refoulement claimants entered with Social Welfare Department of the Hong Kong Government, and the allegation that anyone was ‘punished’ by ISSHK regarding the alleged interaction/ assistance given to Mr. Edward Snowden. All these allegations made against ISSHK are absolutely misconceived and entirely baseless.’ Hui adds that all queries raised by ISSHK caseworkers were related to the standard requirements for all clients to assess their needs and assistance levels: ‘Humanitarian assistance will be given in accordance with the current eligibility criteria, and emergency food and shelter could be arranged for those in urgent need.’
According to Tibbo, ISSHK had questioned Kellapatha and Nonis about Snowden last October. The couple had not answered any queries. “There is no reasonable excuse for ISSHK to refuse assisting this family to meet their basic needs,” says Tibbo, “ISSHK says they do not agree with the new home as it is located within a commercial building (in which many other tenants also live because several units of the building have been converted into residential space).”
The plight of Rodel has been similar since she was questioned by ISSHK about Snowden in September 2016. She too refused to answer. Immediately, ISSHK cut off her electricity payments. Later, in October 2016 when Rodel moved to another home, it dropped humanitarian assistance to her and her five-year-old daughter, says Tibbo. “All her basic needs are paid by donations through crowd-funding efforts and private donations through the Montreal NGO, For the Refugees,” he adds. The Social Welfare Department of Hong Kong did not reply to questions from Open.
Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour (2014) and Oliver Stone’s 2016 biopic on Snowden may have earned his ‘guardian angels’ some fame, but dignity in the real world seems a far cry. “These people should not be penalised and they certainly should not be deported. They performed an act of profound selflessness and kindness, taking in a needy stranger despite their lack of resources,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, adding, “Hopefully the Hong Kong government will come to its senses and let them stay. Otherwise, let’s hope that Canada, which fortunately has a pro-immigration government in an increasingly xenophobic world, lets them in.”
Snowden, a traitor for some and a hero for others, has chosen a thorny road for himself and inadvertently pulled others along in his difficult journey. “But it is not Snowden’s fault [that we are being targeted],” says Rodel. “I would do it again if I had to.”