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Lawyer And His Refugee Clients Have Been Persecuted Since Hiding Edward Snowden

Rob Tibbo arranged for the U.S. whistleblower, then the planet’s most-wanted man, to hide with three refugee families.

Now they seem to be facing the consequences

As Rob Tibbo raced to the Hong Kong International Airport one day last November to catch his getaway flight, a nagging fear followed close behind.

Tibbo, a Canadian expatriate lawyer and respected officer of the local courts, had been in hiding from the police for a month and still worried he could be arrested at any moment.

But his taxi arrived at the airport without incident, and Tibbo was soon in safe hands: Pascal Paradis, a Montreal-based leader of the group Lawyers without Borders, and two Canadian diplomats who shadowed him through security, making sure he safely boarded the Vancouver-bound Air Canada jet.

First, though, he bid an emotional final farewell to several of his impoverished clients also waiting in the terminal, among them migrants who, along with Tibbo, had found themselves in the midst of a story that shook the world.

A year earlier, the National Post — along with the New York Times and Germany’s Handelsblatt — had revealed that the lawyer had arranged for American spy-agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, at the time the planet’s most-wanted man after leaking details of U.S. mass-surveillance programs, to hide in the Hong Kong homes of three refugee families before catching his own flight to Moscow.

Now they all seemed to be facing the consequences of that fateful act.

“My clients were de-facto participants in the whistle-blowing exercise that Mr. Snowden made, and the Hong Kong government just wants them to disappear,” Tibbo told the National Post in a recent interview from his temporary home in southern France.

As for the lawyer himself: “I can’t go back, and I’m not going back.”

In the two years since the story of Snowden’s exodus became public, the refugees and Tibbo have faced what appears to be a broad campaign of harassment and intimidation, the full scope of which has never before been reported.

Various Hong Kong authorities strenuously deny there has been any concerted or politically motivated targeting of the Snowden group.

But days after the news stories appeared revealing the refugees’ role in Snowden’s escape, their asylum cases — all instigated at different times and on hold for years — were suddenly reactivated together, and rejected on the same day.

The migrants were effectively cut off from social assistance in a city where asylum seekers are barred from working, while foreign police with a grim history of human-rights abuses showed up in Hong Kong to try to track some of them down.

Tibbo himself faced escalating pressure from the authorities. The legal-aid organizations that funded the refugee cases choked off payments and questioned his professionalism, while Hong Kong’s legal regulator peppered the lawyer with disciplinary charges after a spotless 15-year career in the territory.

Lawyer Robert Tibbo, right, arrives with his refugee clients to speak to the press outside the Immigration Tower in Hong Kong on May 15, 2017. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

When it seemed the police, too, were on his trail, Tibbo decided he had to leave.

“I’m pretty much out of money. My wife and I are pretty much living in poverty,” he told the Post. “The bottom line is my career in Hong Kong is over.”

There are a number of reasons why Hong Kong officials — or their overseers in Beijing — might want to hound the group, Tibbo said, including that their tale has legitimized and drawn embarrassing attention to refugee claimants who have long been treated abysmally in the territory. And any country harbouring a secret surveillance apparatus, he speculated, would see Snowden and his enablers as a threat.

“This is retaliation at its most brazen,” Snowden himself told the Post via text message from his temporary refuge in Russia. “You can’t look at something like this without getting a sense that the mask has dropped … (and) there’s a machine that would burn everything we love to the ground without a tear if it meant making a problem go away.”

Snowden said he has little doubt that American officials are also pulling strings in Hong Kong, doing “what they can to make the lives of the families harder, because they’re a symbol.”

Tibbo, meanwhile, said he will keep fighting until his clients are on Canadian soil, after a group of Montreal lawyers applied in January 2017 to have them admitted here as refugees.

Canadian authorities must act fast or will be “condemning them to death,” one of those advocates told the Post, as the asylum-seekers are otherwise likely to be sent back to their home countries, and a fate that terrifies them.

“They have been increasingly targeted by Hong Kong authorities,” said Montreal lawyer Marc-André Séguin, who is spearheading the migrants’ Canadian claims.

A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the department cannot comment on individual applicants, but said claims are generally considered on a “first-in, first-out basis,” with some exceptions made for urgent situations.

Canadian lawyer Robert Tibbo with Edward Snowden in Russia last year. (Lindsay Mills)

Snowden was a contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 when he fled to Hong Kong with classified documents that showed his government and some of its allies had been conducting surveillance of the Internet and telephones that caught millions of ordinary Americans and other citizens in their dragnet.

Holed up in a five-star hotel, Snowden leaked the documents to journalists, triggering heated debate about the broad reach of post-9/11 digital spying — and accusations he had betrayed his country by committing its biggest-ever intelligence breach.

With American authorities filing Espionage Act charges against him, Snowden flew to Moscow, planning to press on from there to Latin America. But for two weeks before arriving in Russia, he disappeared.

It was not until September 2016 that Tibbo revealed Snowden’s whereabouts during those frantic days. Retained to act for Snowden, Tibbo had convinced three refugee families whom he also represented to hide Snowden where no one would think to look: the slums that are home to thousands of penniless asylum seekers in one of the world’s richest cities.

The Montreal native, who had been practicing law in Hong Kong since 2004, said he decided to go public about the events in 2016 after director Oliver Stone told him the refugees’ role in the saga would be featured in his 2016 movie, Snowden.

In an interview with the Post, Stone, famous for such films as Platoon and Wall Street, said he learned about the migrants’ actions from Snowden, but made sure none were identified in the movie. He said he was surprised when they went public, assuming they did so to improve their meagre prospects in a jurisdiction infamous for rejecting refugee claims.

“I think a gamble was taken to bring attention to them in a positive way,” Stone said. “It doesn’t seem like that worked.”

Tibbo said he believed the movie would shine a spotlight on his clients — even if they were not named — and that making their role even more public would keep them safer.

“I didn’t want the clients in the shadows, because it’s in the shadows that they’d end up disappearing or being killed.”

But that exposure, it soon became clear, would offer them little protection.

From right: Asylum seekers Ajith Pushpa Kumara, Nadeeka Dilrukshi Nonis, with her son Dinath, and Vanessa Mae Rodel, with her daughter Keana and Nonis’s daughter Sethmundi Kellapatha wait at the office of Torture Claims Appeal Board in Hong Kong on July 17, 2017. (Anthony Wallace / AFP/Getty Images)

Snowden was hidden by a Sri Lankan couple who have two children, another unrelated Sri Lankan man and a Filipino woman and her daughter. The three families came to Hong Kong at different points and had been in limbo for years. But within days of their acts being publicized in 2016, the Hong Kong Immigration Department announced it was bringing all their cases to hearings imminently.

In Hong Kong, that is rarely good news.

The territory approves about half of one percent of asylum claims — an acceptance rate of virtually zero. By contrast, Canada has accepted at least 50 percent of the people who applied for refugee status in recent years, including many from Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

On a single day — May 11, 2017 — every one of the Snowden refugees was denied asylum. Their appeals were also scheduled much faster than the norm; they are awaiting the outcomes of those now.

“Clearly there is an attempt at getting rid of my clients,” said Seguin.

Hong Kong’s Immigration Department (ImmD) told the Post it rejects any accusations it singled out particular people for unusual treatment. Screening has been sped up over the last few years to clear a backlog of asylum cases, with the number processed jumping from 826 in 2014 to 4,546 so far this year, it said in an emailed response to questions.

“The fact is, ImmD has expedited screening of ALL claims in the backlog, for the benefit of both the Hong Kong community at large, as well as that of the claimants,” the department said.

The agency also blamed Tibbo and his “frequent unavailability” due to personal travel for earlier delays in the cases.

Supun Thilina Kellapatha and his lawyer Robert Tibbo in his apartment in Hong Kong in December 2016. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

Tibbo, Seguin, Lawyers Without Borders and two of his clients whom the Post interviewed dismissed the suggestion that the lawyer has done anything but represent his clients diligently, often at his own expense.

Regardless, there was more bad news for the Snowden families when they visited the Swiss contractor, International Social Services (ISS), that administers social assistance for the Hong Kong government. Such aid was a necessity for them, given strict laws barring asylum seekers from working or even begging.

When Filipino Vanessa Rodel and Sri Lankan couple Supun Thilina and Nadeeka Nonis inquired about the assistance they were receiving, they say their welfare case officers grilled them about the help they had given Snowden three years earlier. Each referred the inquiries to Tibbo.

Then, bit by bit, they were effectively denied any further assistance, Tibbo said, as was the Sri Lankan man, Ajith Kumara.

Welfare case officers “asked me how many days Edward Snowden stayed in my house,” Rodel recalled in an interview. “I refused to answer the question and they cut all my assistance … I’m shocked.”

ISS spokeswoman Connie Hui said the agency only asks questions that help determine clients’ needs, and said allegations the migrants were punished for not providing information on Snowden are “absolutely misconceived and entirely baseless.”

For the last two years, the seven refugees’ rent, food and other living expenses have been covered with funds raised by Tibbo and For the Refugees, the Canadian NGO Seguin runs that was set up to sponsor them.

Finally, three months after the stories of Snowden’s Hong Kong sanctuary were published, the lawyer was speaking at a conference in Germany when he got word of another troubling development.

Edward Snowden in Russia earlier this year. (Lindsay Mills)

Two officers from the Sri Lankan police criminal investigation department were in Hong Kong, trying to find Ajith, Supun and Nadeeka. They learned the department had also harassed their families back home.

Given the Sri Lankan security sector’s well-documented record of torture and other abuses, it was chilling news and spread quickly among migrants from the country, said Ranjith Prabha, another of Tibbo’s clients.

“Everybody was shocked,” he said in an interview.

But the police took four months to begin looking into the reports and then denied the foreign detectives ever came, while refusing to check immigration records to back up their contention, Tibbo said.

Meanwhile, Prabha was among a handful of asylum seekers police arrested in Hong Kong, hustling them into an unmarked van and taking them to police headquarters.

He told the Post police questioned him about Snowden — though he was not involved in hiding the American — and prompted him to say that Tibbo had fabricated the reports about Sri Lankan police. He refused.

In answer to a number of questions about the events, a Hong Kong police spokesman said only that another government department referred a case to it in March 2017, and the investigation suggested “no evidence supporting any criminal offence and no arrest was made.”

Tibbo, meanwhile, was facing mounting pressure from the Hong Kong Bar Association, which regulates the profession locally. First it abruptly pushed forward a long-dormant complaint of alleged rudeness to a prosecutor, which Tibbo’s own lawyer called “trivial garbage.”

Then he was notified of an unusual anonymous complaint signed by a “large group of exasperated barristers.”

Citing the Post’s Snowden story, it alleged that Tibbo had put the refugees in danger, via the “disgraceful touting” of his work — and had hurt the Hong Kong bar by appearing in a photo with an “international fugitive.”

Lawyer Robert Tibbo, right, and Edward Snowden in a photo taken July 26, 2016 in Moscow. (N.Y. Jennifer)

Pascal Paradis of Lawyers Without Borders Canada says it’s virtually unheard-of for a legal regulator to consider an anonymous complaint, and suggested Tibbo is “being pushed around and pressured” because of the clients he represents.

Tibbo said he took pains to ensure each refugee consented to sheltering the American — an act he said was perfectly legal — and later to going public about it. Rodel, for one, said she has no regrets.

“I helped him from the bottom of my heart,” she said of Snowden. “There was no pressure for me, no thinking twice to help him … What he’s done, I’m very proud of him, he’s a hero.”

However Robert Pang, a bar association spokesman, rejected any suggestion the agency was trying to persecute Tibbo, and dismissed the significance of the anonymous complaint. The association was going to investigate the Canadian anyway because of the decision he and his clients made to publicize their actions, Pang said.

“To allow them to be identified with Edward Snowden, and to have their names, photographs and where they live widely publicised could well be damaging to their safety and interests,” he said.

Tibbo also felt heat from Hong Kong’s Duty Lawyer Service, the government-funded body which, overseen by the bar association, bankrolled many of the refugee cases. To this day, it refuses to pay the bulk of his recent fees, Tibbo claimed, while also complaining about him to the regulator

(The service has, in fact, compensated the lawyer for most of his recent work, said Pang, who’s also on the council of that organization.)

Yet none of his clients has ever had critical words about his work, said Tibbo, Lawyers without Borders, Seguin and the two refugees interviewed by the Post.

In fact, they noted Tibbo often worked pro bono for people whom most Hong Kongers eschew, while volunteering with a group — Vision First — that exposed the appalling living conditions of many refugee claimants.

Lawyers Without Borders said the concerted attacks on Tibbo mirror those it sees in developing countries when governments target dissident lawyers. What’s unusual is to find such behaviour in an advanced, quasi-democratic jurisdiction, said Paradis, the group’s executive director.

The British-style legal system was one of the institutions that survived China’s 1997 takeover of Hong Kong, but local human-rights activists believe its independence is wilting under mainland pressure.

“They were all raising concerns about the future of the rule of law in Hong Kong and they were basically saying, ‘Mr. Tibbo’s situation, hopefully it isn’t a sign of things to come’ — but it might be,” said Paradis.

Under mounting pressure and afraid of what would happen next, Tibbo persuaded his wife to fly to Canada in June of last year, taking with her their three cats and dog, a rescue Siberian husky.

Four months later, he said, he heard seven police officers had shown up looking for him at their then-empty home on Hong Kong’s Lantao Island. He went “underground,” living in a succession of friends’ homes to evade police, while still appearing at meetings and hearings for his clients.

In an echo of Snowden’s departure four years earlier, Tibbo finally made his escape last Nov. 30.

He and his six clients, some of whom were at the airport to say goodbye, are victims, he maintained, of a decision to help the man who exposed some of the world’s most closely held secrets.

“If you look at all the evidence together,” he said, “to me it’s quite obvious that the Hong Kong government, the Chinese government, whichever government it is — they’re very uncomfortable with the Snowden refugees.”

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