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Was NSA leaker Snowden really in Hong Kong?

While NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden continues to baffle world governments and the news media with his exact whereabouts and travel plans, one question apparently not being asked is whether he was ever in Hong Kong in the first place.

Or, if Snowden was in Hong Kong, did he leave the region the weekend, when he was reported to have departed for Moscow?

Snowden is currently a high-profile figure in the news. Yet not a single picture or video that places him in Hong Kong has emerged, including during his purported arrival at the airport with a small entourage of lawyers and a WikiLeaks representative.

The South China Morning Post claimed Snowden took off from the Hong Kong airport at 10:55 a.m. local time on Sunday on flight SU213 and was due to arrive at Moscow’s Shermetyevo International Airport at 5:15 p.m.

Upon the flight’s arrival, Russian and international camera crews caught no glimpses of Snowden.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said yesterday that Snowden hasn’t officially crossed the Russian border. He said Russia has nothing to do with Snowden and that the country only learned of his travel plans from media reports.

Lavrov further claimed the Russian government has “no relation to Mr. Snowden, his relations with American justice or his travels around the world.”

“He chooses his route himself, and we have learned about it from the media,” Lavrov said.

Snowden reportedly booked a seat on a flight from Moscow to Cuba on Monday but didn’t board the plane.

According to Russian news accounts, Snowden is in a transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, but journalists there haven’t seen him. No images of him in the transit zone have been released.

Hong Kong?

The only people who say they met with Snowden in Hong Kong are a group of three lawyers, a WikiLeaks representative, Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald and documentary maker Laura Poitras. Both Greenwald and Poitras are long-time anti-surveillance activists, while the lawyers come from a politically active firm.

Poitras made a video of Greenwald interviewing Snowden, purportedly in Hong Kong. The video was posted on the Guardian’s website.

Nothing in the video identifies Snowden as being in Hong Kong other than momentary unrelated footage of the Hong Kong waterfront. Snowden is not seen in those images.

According to news reports, Snowden first arrived in Hong Kong from Hawaii in late May, where he was helped by an individual whom he had met on a previous vacation there, according to Snowden’s lawyer, Albert Ho, a former chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.

Greenwald reported Snowden was staying in a luxury hotel but declined to name the establishment.

Hong Kong media attempted to locate Snowden but could not find him at any hotel.

Later, Ho explained Snowden spent his first three weeks in Hong Kong in the five-star luxury Mira Hotel.

Reuters reported that hotel staff said Snowden rarely left his room, dining on room service. It was unclear whether the staff actually saw Snowden.

After June 10, Snowden was said to have moved into a private apartment with help from the undisclosed individual whom he purportedly met on a previous trip to the city.

Ho said he met Snowden once for a two-hour conversation over soda and pizza with several other lawyers present to discuss his travel plans.

He said Snowden wore a cap and sunglasses and insisted that the assembled lawyers hide their cellphones in the refrigerator of the home where he was staying.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told reporters Monday that his organization paid for Snowden’s lodging in Hong Kong and his flight out.

The only evidence of Snowden arriving at the Hong Kong airport and checking into a flight comes from Ho’s description of the events.

Ho told reporters Snowden went through the same security and immigration channels as most passengers at the airport.

Ho told reporters Snowden was accompanied to the airport by Jonathan Man, an associate at Ho’s lawfirm, Ho, Tse, Wai, & Partners.

The law firm previously handled other controversial cases of whistleblowers seeking asylum.

Ho said Man went to the airport “to ensure (Snowden’s) safe departure, or if he were detained at the airport, we would apply for bail or habeas corpus to seek his immediate release from detention.”

Snowden was also joined by a representative of WikiLeaks, Sarah Harrison.

Ho said Snowden presented his passport and his ticket at the Aeroflot counter and checked in without any problems.

On Sunday, the Hong Kong government released a statement confirming Snowden’s departure.

“Mr Edward Snowden left Hong Kong today [June 23] of his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel.

“The US government earlier on made a request to the HKSAR [Hong Kong special administrative region] government for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against Mr Snowden. Since the documents provided by the US government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR government has requested the US government to provide additional information so that the Department of Justice could consider whether the US government’s request can meet the relevant legal conditions.

“As the HKSAR government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.

“The HKSAR government has already informed the US government of Mr Snowden’s departure.”