Whistleblower Edward Snowden calls on Canada to help the refugee families who helped him

Whistleblower Edward Snowden is pleading with Canada to let in the other families who sheltered him while he was on the run — the three adults and two children who are still in Hong Kong. He spoke to The National's Adrienne Arsenault today. 

Only 2 of the 7 people he lived with in Hong Kong have been granted asylum

Vanessa Rodel and her 7-year-old daughter Keana exit Pearson Airport in Toronto, March 25. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden is urging the Canadian government to accept all seven of the people who sheltered him in Hong Kong while he was fleeing prosecution as refugees.

In a rare interview, he tells The National's Adrienne Arsenault that every day the individuals remain in Hong Kong, "they are in immediate danger." 

Two members of the group, Vanessa Rodel and her daughter seven-year-old Keana, arrived in Canada last week. The whole story reads a bit like a movie script. And why not? 

The reason Canadians know their story at all is because filmmaker Oliver Stone made a movie about Snowden, and along the way — at some point during the scripting process it's believed — information got out  that revealed how Rodel and Keana's lives — along with the rest of the group's — were intertwined with Snowden's.

Edward Snowden leaked classified NSA documents in 2013. The United States declared him a traitor and Snowden fled prosecution. (The Guardian/Associated Press)

Back in 2013, Snowden leaked classified documents from the U.S. National Security Agency, where he had been working as a contractor. The documents revealed a massive government surveillance operation, and the United States declared him a traitor. Snowden fled to avoid prosecution, at one point winding up in Hong Kong. 

That's where he met Rodel. 

She and two other families — refugees themselves having fled the Philippines and Sri Lanka — sheltered Snowden in their tiny homes in Hong Kong while he was on the run.

The seven people who sheltered Snowden in Hong Kong. Sri Lankan refugee Supun Thilina Kellapatha, 3rd from the left, his partner Nadeeka, left, with their baby boy Dinath and daughter Sethumdi, Sri Lankan refugee Ajith Puspa, 3rd from the right, Rodel, right, and her daughter Keana. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images)

Now, from his apartment in Russia, where Edward Snowden lives in exile, he is pleading with Canada to let in the other families — the three adults and two children who were left behind. 

"These people helped me in 2013," Snowden told Arsenault by video chat. "And yet here we are 2019."

Snowden says Canada is best positioned to welcome all seven refugees. (Jean-François Bisson/CBC News)

Snowden found himself living with the families in Hong Kong six years ago because of a Canadian lawyer, Robert Tibbo. He was Snowden's lawyer and he was also working for the families, trying to keep them from being deported and trying to get them safely out of Hong Kong.

"I would say this one guy... is perhaps the reason [the families] haven't been sent back yet," Snowden said.

He believes it took the leak during the moviemaking to get the world to pay attention to the families' plight. He says Rodel and her daughter would not be in Canada were it not "for the profile they got from this film" and "the insanity of the response of the Hong Kong government to having their mistreatment of these refugee families ... suddenly thrust into the global spotlight."

Snowden describes what the refugee families face daily living in Hong Kong.

Snowden on refugees' life in Hong Kong

3 years ago
Duration 1:30
Edward Snowden tells Adrienne Arsenault about the danger the people who helped hide him in Hong Kong face now that what they did is public.

Rodel and Keana, another refugee couple and their two children, and a third man were all living as refugees in Hong Kong in 2013. They were poor, prohibited from working by the Hong Kong government, living in cramped spaces.

"The bathroom sink was the kitchen sink," said Snowden. Over a period of about three weeks, he crowded into each of the families' three homes with them. It wasn't long before he moved on to Russia  —  but it was long enough to have a negative impact on Rodel and the others. 

Their lives were already difficult, Snowden said. And once the Hong Kong government got wind through the movie leak that the families had sheltered Snowden, their situation got worse. Snowden says the government basically retaliated, removing their refugee stipends and access to food and housing.

Arsenault asks Snowden what it was like to realize that the very people who had helped him were being made to pay for it.

Snowden on the suffering of those who helped him

3 years ago
Duration 1:42
Edward Snowden tells Adrienne Arsenault that the people who helped him are being made to suffer again and again.

That's when Snowden says the effort to get the families refugee status in another country began. He believes Canada is best positioned to help them.

"These children are stateless and they will never live a free life unless they are welcomed into and protected by a state. And the only one who is in a position to do so right now, who has the legal framework to do so right now is Canada."

The only thing they did is they helped someone who was facing retaliation for telling the truth.- Edward Snowden

The paperwork requesting asylum from Canada was filed in early 2017 and Snowden says their situation is dire. He says the families will be deported to Sri Lanka where they where they claim to face torture and death threats. He is enormously grateful that Rodel and Keana are here, but says there is clearly something preventing the other five from being immediately brought to Canada, too.

"If this process is independent, If it's truly independent, they already would have been admitted. I believe and everyone else believes the only reason this process for admission has taken so long is simply because the Canadian government is bending over backwards not to create an appearance that might irritate the United States government."

That's because the United States still considers Snowden a traitor and he still faces charges in the U.S. related to his exposure of what was considered state secrets.

Snowden says that shouldn't matter.

"The only thing they did is they helped someone who was facing retaliation for telling the truth. And if that's something that Canada can't stand behind, that's something we need to know publicly rather than them sort of doing it privately."

He added, "Admitting these families is something Canada can be proud of. And seeing these families have a happy ending, I think in the fullness of history is something that the United States will be very much glad happened."

Watch Adrienne's full interview from The National: 

Edward Snowden on 'Snowden angels' and his warning for Canada

3 years ago
Duration 7:46
Former CIA employee and NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden has a message for Canada. He sat down for an exclusive interview with The National's Adrienne Arsenault.