The lawyer of the whistleblower: «Edward Snowden will be a hero»

Robert Tibbo has a life before and after Edward Snowden. The human rights lawyer pays a high price for supporting the most famous whistleblower in the world. Today he fights from his exile in France for his clients.

Roman Schenkel, Marseille
Robert Tibbo, the lawyer of Edward Snowden, in Marseille. «My career is over in Hong Kong», Tibbo says. (Photo: Benjamin Bechet, 23. November 2018)

Robert Tibbo, the lawyer of Edward Snowden, in Marseille. «My career is over in Hong Kong», Tibbo says. (Photo: Benjamin Bechet, 23. November 2018)

Were Robert Tibbo to have a good night's sleep, he would be leading a very different life. That's not the case, however. The Canadian born human rights lawyer is available for his clients 24 hours a day. The early hours of 10 June 2013 were no exception. His phone rang and a 29-year old computer nerd called Edward Snowden needed help. The former American secret service agent and National Security Agency (NSA) employee was on the run and stranded in Hong Kong. In his luggage there were four computers, USB sticks and 1.7 million secret documents. Snowden had evidence that the NSA was spying on its domestic population and on every single government in the world. So began the biggest spy story of all time.

Why did Edward Snowden choose you specifically?

Robert Tibbo: Edward Snowden needed a lawyer in Hong Kong. And fast.

But he must have chosen you for a particular reason?

At the time I was working a lot with refugees in Hong Kong. They wanted political asylum and were fighting against their removal or deportation. I was well-known among the refugee community. If a refugee was looking for a lawyer, my name was among the first that came up. Edward Snowden would become a refugee.

Did you hesitate at all when he asked you for help?

No, not for a second. I knew immediately that it would change my life. But not at the stage to what extent.

Six years later, practically to the very day, Robert Tibbo, 55, is sitting at a table in a restaurant at Marseille's old harbour. He's made the journey from a village almost 100 kilometres from the French port. The Canadian lawyer lives there in exile in a house that belongs to a friend. Exactly where it is, he won't say. Tibbo is cautious. He does without a credit card or a phone with a SIM; he pays for all purchases by cash. The village, home to three bakeries and a small restaurant, is apparently very quiet. Good for someone like Tibbo. His life is turbulent enough.

Just two years ago he was living with his wife in an outer island village house in Hong Kong. Following a career as a commercial lawyer, Tibbo subsequently made a name for himself as an expert in human rights. He represented numerous asylum seekers in Hong Kong and had gained the trust of this «extremely marginalized» community. Tibbo's clients were asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and a number of West and East African countries all of them traumatized men and women, threatened with torture or even death in their home countries. The refugees stick together, living in the most run-down parts of town. There are 12000 of them according to the government of Hong Kong; Tibbo estimates the real figure to be much higher. The requests for asylum are mostly doomed from the outset. On average less than 0.5 percent of all requests are granted. «It´s a success if I manage to bring a case to court», says Tibbo.

And it was right here, in the heart of these wretched slums, that the canny lawyer planned to hide his whistleblowing American client. His reasoning: «Because no one would look for him there». On the evening of 10 June 2013 at dusk, he organized the get-away from the hotel in which Snowden had been holed up and that in the meantime had been besieged by the media. It had to happen quickly. The danger that «Ed» – as Tibbo calls his most well-known client – would be caught was high. Snowden himself said later that he'd predicted his chances of getting away at zero percent. And with good reason: having given away his identity in an interview with «The Guardian», everyone was on his trail. The USA, China, the media, other countries´ secret services. «It was the biggest man-hunt in the world», says Tibbo. However by dint of cunning and fortune, he and a group of helpers managed to smuggle Snowden out of the hotel.

Initially, he requested asylum for Snowden at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in order to prevent him being extradited to the USA. Then Tibbo asked his clients from the slums for help. Three refugee families had already offered to house Snowden. Help from one refugee family to another. The whistleblower spends thirteen days with them and then on 23 June 2013 Tibbo brings Snowden to the Hong Kong International Airport and the whistleblower travels undercover on to Moscow. He actually wanted to get to South America. But whilst transiting through Moscow he discovered his passport had already been revoked by the USA. In twentyone states the whistleblower makes a request for asylum, including, apparently, in Switzerland. He had no success. To this day, Snowden remains in Russia.

What made you think of hiding Edward Snowden with your clients?

No one pays attention to refugees in Hong Kong. The government treats them as criminals. They are marginalized, discriminated against. They live in poverty, right at the bottom of the social and financial ladder. But they were nonetheless willing to help. I was convinced no one would think to look for him there.

Did the families know who they were hosting?

They knew that Edward Snowden was being persecuted by his home country. That he was a political refugee like them. They had already helped many other refugees in the past. For them, Snowden was just another refugee in need.

Your actions put your clients in danger.

I don't regret what I did. Given everything I know about what happened, I would do the same again. But I do feel a deep sense of moral responsibility towards them. It makes me very sad when I see how the government of Hong Kong and also that of Canada have treated them. Nor do my clients regret hiding Snowden. They would do the same again.

Through their solidarity, the refugee families nonetheless significantly affected their own destiny. In the first years following Snowden's escape, the details of the «wild days in Hong Kong», as Tibbo calls them, remained a tightly kept secret. The central role of these families and that of their lawyer first came to light in Oliver Stone's Hollywood film «Snowden». The film was premiered in September 2016. The academy award winning director of «Platoon» later admitted in an interview that he had heard about the refugees from Edward Snowden.

Although their real identities are not revealed in the film, Tibbo advised his clients to go public. «I thought that if their identities were made public, that would make them more safe», Tibbo explains his advice to to go to the media. He says the alternative was they could have disappeared if they hid in the shadows. A fallacy: «From that moment, things got ugly», he explains. «Snowden's guardian angels», as they have since been called, had to pay a heavy price for their time in the spotlight.

The three families – a Sri Lankan couple with two children, another man, a former soldier from Sri Lanka, a Philippine woman and her daughter – of which the adults all came to Hong Kong at different times and their applications for asylum had been pending for years. The three children were all born in Hong Kong stateless. In 2016, a few days after the publication of their roles in the Snowden affair, the Hong Kong Immigration Department Removal Assessment Section swiftly reactivated their cases for screening after ignoring them for more than five years. In Hong Kong that rarely means good news. The only thing their cases had in common was Mr Snowden.

«Snowden's guardian angels» (from left): Vanessa Mae Rodel with her daughter Keana (in the front on the left), Ajith Pushpa, the couple Nadeeka and Supun Thilina with their daughters Dinath und Sethumdi (in the front on the right). (Photo: Jayne Russel)

«Snowden's guardian angels» (from left): Vanessa Mae Rodel with her daughter Keana (in the front on the left), Ajith Pushpa, the couple Nadeeka and Supun Thilina with their daughters Dinath und Sethumdi (in the front on the right). (Photo: Jayne Russel)

Since then, the life of these refugees in Hong Kong has become considerably more complicated. Their lawyer explains: «Each month they have to go the immigration authority detention center and sign a register. In the past year the police have detained some of them, interrogating them about Mr Snowden, and they have been under constant police surveillance without obvious cause.» A number of Tibbo’s clients who were witnesses for the Snowden Guardian Angels have been forced into unregistered police cars and been interrogated about Mr Snowden at the police station – «in the absence of either a translator and at all times denied a lawyer». Five years later, even Hong Kong police investigators illegally seized and scanned their mobile phones for data and information. They still hope to unearth intelligence and documents of the whistleblower who got away. What´s more, their financial support, commissioned by Hong Kong and paid for by the Geneva-based International Social Services, was stopped after the Snowden Refugees refused to answer International Social Services’ questions about Mr Snowden.

Tibbo likewise came under the radar of the authorities. At the Hong Kong Bar Association, the supervisory body for lawyers, anonymous complaints were made against him. The Bar Association and the government would not stop meddling in his dossiers. Finally the police accused him of lying and incitement to make false statements. «I could sense that they wanted to destroy me financially and personally». Tibbo knew then that it was time to leave the city. He first arranged for his wife to immediately leave the city taking with her to Canada their three cats and Siberian husky. Then on 30 November 2017, with the presence, assistance and advice of Lawyers Without Borders Canada and the Canadian Consulate in Hong Kong, he left the city in which he had lived for almost thirty years.

Do you regret taking on Edward Snowden as a client?

No, not at all. I'm just doing my job and it's the authorities that are behaving badly. And ultimately I chose to be a lawyer and I chose to support human rights. They can try to corrupt me or threaten me. But that won't stop me doing what I do.

Robert Tibbo (r.) with Edward Snowden in Moscow. (Photo: NY Jennifer, 26. Juli 2016)

Robert Tibbo (r.) with Edward Snowden in Moscow. (Photo: NY Jennifer, 26. Juli 2016)

Tibbo has kept on his practice in Hong Kong. But he can't go back. If he needs to go to court with his clients, one of his colleagues goes instead. «The risk of me being arrested is too high.» In France, he has set up a «nomadic office» to work on his cases – despite the time difference with Hong Kong, where his clients are, and Canada, where his wife lives. So far, she has not acquired a visa for the Schengen area and lives on a farm in Canada. «In the last two years, I've only seen her for just six months», says Tibbo. For him, it's no coincidence that his wife has twice been denied a visa. But France is a good place for him to be. He has many meetings and conferences in Europe and until recently also had a teaching post in Austria.

Snowden's «guardian angels» have been able to keep their head above water thanks to donations from «For the Refugees», a non-governmental organization based in Montreal. «They run the risk of being deported to their country of origin at any time», the lawyer says. He has tried to exert pressure regarding their requests for political asylum for his clients in Canada. However, Ottawa had been reluctant to act. Tibbo assumes the pressure from the USA must be huge. But he didn't give up and in March of this year achieved a first success: two of his seven clients, Vanessa Rodel and her daughter Keana, were granted asylum in Canada, now living in Montreal. «The feeling when they landed in Canada was indescribable», says Tibbo. The remaining five «Snowden refugees» in Hong Kong now hope that their requests for asylum will finally be granted by Canada too. Tibbo says the Snowden guardian angels are now divided and that is not right.

Vanessa Rodel and her seven-year-old daughter Keana hug lawyer Robert Tibbo after arriving at Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto. (Photo: Christopher Katsarov/AP, 25. März 2019)

Vanessa Rodel and her seven-year-old daughter Keana hug lawyer Robert Tibbo after arriving at Lester B. Pearson Airport in Toronto. (Photo: Christopher Katsarov/AP, 25. März 2019)

The case surrounding Edward Snowden with whom Tibbo is in contact up to several times per week, will not be resolved so swiftly. «We get in touch when a legal question crops up». For that, he uses a «pretty good encryption software». For important issues, Tibbo travels to Moscow to meet with his client in person.

Is Edward Snowden a client like any other?

I could say that I treat him like every other client. I have the highest standards for all my clients, rich and poor. I fight for each of them. Fearlessly. But Edward Snowden´s case is unique. Almost every government in the world wants to know what he´s up to and what he´s thinking. Many governments would like to listen in when he´s communicating.

How safe is Edward Snowden in Russia?

He is not safe, but his situation is relatively stable. Edward Snowden says himself that he´ll never be safe. He is afraid that someone could take his life from him.

Is he allowed to move about freely?

He's not committed any crime in Russia. He has a business visa valid until January 2020. The Kremlin has made it clear several times that they're willing to extend it. I think Snowden will stay in Russia for a while until he's able to return to the USA safely.

Does he actually want to go back to the USA?

He'd really like to go back to his home country, where his family lives. One day there will be a political solution for Edward Snowden's return, it's just a question of time and circumstances. It's not possible with the Trump government. People must first understand what Snowden has done for them. The good that he has done.

How will Edward Snowden be viewed in 50 years – as a hero or a traitor?

Edward Snowden will be a hero. The American people will recognize his legacy. But currently the USA is very divided; there is so much going wrong in society there. History will judge Snowden very kindly.

Translated by Julia Wilson