Protesters supporting Edward Snowden confront policemen as they demand that US President Barack Obama grant Snowden a pardon, outside the US Consulate in Hong Kong, China, on September 25, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

(New York) – Seven people who sheltered the whistleblower Edward Snowden in June 2013 are at risk of return to torture and persecution at home, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 11, 2017, the Hong Kong Immigration Department rejected their asylum claim; their lawyers are in the process of appealing the decision and pursuing a separate case for entry and asylum in Canada, where sponsors are ready to assist them.

“Those who helped Edward Snowden in Hong Kong when he was seeking asylum now find themselves at dire risk if sent back to their countries,” said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Canada has the opportunity to a prevent a terrible outcome and should act immediately.”

The asylum-seekers include two men and a woman from Sri Lanka, and a woman from the Philippines, along with their three children who were born in Hong Kong and are stateless. The adults allege that they suffered torture and persecution in their home countries, and have been pursued by powerful people or officials who have tracked or threatened them.

Their asylum lawyer, Robert Tibbo, brought Snowden, another client, to their homes in 2013 after he revealed he had disclosed classified information to the press. The families each freely allowed Snowden to stay with them for a short time after his disclosures became public but before his arrest was sought.

Neither the asylum-seekers nor their lawyer revealed their role in Snowden’s journey. However, journalists independently discovered their identities shortly before the release of an Oliver Stone movie about Snowden that shows him being hidden among asylum-seekers in Hong Kong. At that point, the asylum-seekers went public in an effort to have some control over how they were portrayed in the media.

Stories and photographs of the asylum-seekers have been published worldwide, including in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, where they fear persecution. In October 2016, Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department officers were in Hong Kong trying to locate the asylum-seekers, showing their photographs to people there. The asylum-seekers have since moved location in Hong Kong but are living in considerable fear of being forcibly returned to their countries. 

“This could end very badly for these people, who have identified persecutors searching for them,” said PoKempner, who noted that Hong Kong for many years has had a shockingly poor record on recognition of asylum claims. “It is all the more urgent for Canada to intervene swiftly and protect them.”