One of seven people who helped shelter former CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden when he fled to Hong Kong is in failing health and needs Canada’s help, his lawyer Robert Tibbo said Monday.
Canada must permit the immediate immigration of Ajith Pushpa Kumara or he risks being deported back to Sri Lanka, where he risks being abused and tortured, Tibbo said in an interview.
Kumara is one of seven people known as Snowden’s “Guardian Angels,” who helped the fugitive at Tibbo’s request in 2013, when the whistleblower fled to Hong Kong after leaking classified information about the U.S. National Security Administration.
Snowden’s leaks revealed to the world the global reach of the vast surveillance network of the United States and its allies. Snowden, who is still represented by Tibbo, is now in Moscow and faces charges related to the leaks in the U.S.
The seven “angels” – four adults and three children – are asylum seekers themselves and are represented by Tibbo. They fled Sri Lanka and the Philippines for Hong Kong several years ago.
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All applied for refugee status in Hong Kong and all were rejected. Six of them are waiting for a decision on their appeal while Kumara’s appeal hearing began Monday and is scheduled to continue Wednesday.
The seven “angels” gained notoriety in 2016 when their existence was revealed in Oliver Stone’s film “Snowden,” and have since faced political persecution in Hong Kong, their supporters say.
With the help of Tibbo and Montreal-based lawyers, all seven also applied for refugee status in Canada. Requests for their applications to be fast-tracked by the Canadian government were rebuffed and the asylum seekers are facing months or years waiting for Canada’s decision.
Kumara has also recently asked for a temporary resident permit in Canada – which would allow him to travel to the country while awaiting a decision on his refugee application – but has so far not heard back, Tibbo said.
“(Kumara’s) psychological state has gone into a spiral and he’s descended into a very vulnerable condition, and his condition is not going to improve,” Tibbo said.
“It’s at a point where he needs to be taken out of Hong Kong into a safe third country – and that’s Canada.”
Tibbo said Hong Kong is notorious for its low acceptance rate for asylum seekers and said there is little chance the seven people will be allowed to stay. He fears all seven could be imminently detained or ordered deported to their countries of origin.
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“In Hong Kong the chances are pretty much zero that they are going to succeed – and that has nothing to do with the merits of their cases, the merits are very strong,” Tibbo said.
Human Rights Watch is also pushing for Canada to help Kumara.
“We wish to direct your attention urgently to the plight of (Kumara), a 45 year-old Sri Lankan man who experienced horrific treatment at the hands of the military police, including beatings, torture and rape,” the organization said in a letter this month addressed to Canada’s immigration minister.
“(Kumara’s) very survival right now may depend on removal to a place of security while his claims are assessed. We urge Canada to move swiftly, and give this man, who did no more than help another asylum seeker, a reason to hope and to heal in safety.”
Shannon Ker, spokesperson with Canada’s Immigration Department said, “as a matter of fairness … we generally process applications on a first-in, first out basis. Cases may be expedited via the Urgent Protection Program and on occasion, missions may determine that certain cases need to be expedited.
“As a matter related to this issue is before the courts, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
Hong Kong immigration authorities recently removed Tibbo from Kumara’s case because the lawyer was overseas. The Sri Lankan had to scramble to find new legal counsel in time for his appeal hearing.
Tibbo said Kumara was also initially denied access to another lawyer before being able to secure counsel for the hearing.
Snowden told The Canadian Press via Tibbo that Kumara is facing an injustice.
“That the Hong Kong government-funded legal service to refugee claimants would remove a refugee’s lawyer against their objections, then deny him access to legal services just five days before his appeal is astonishing,” Snowden said in a written statement. “Why bother with the pageantry of a trial if you’re willing to so aggressively demonstrate that there’s not going to be any fairness in it?
“This is worse than an injustice: it is an insult to the idea of courts.”
A not-for-profit organization called For the Refugees, started by three Montreal lawyers in 2016, is raising funds to help pay legal costs for the Snowden-linked asylum seekers.