November 21, 2018
Durham University student was detained while on way home from PhD research trip
Matthew Hedges: British academic accused of spying jailed for life in UAE
A British academic who was accused of spying for the UK government in the United Arab Emirates after travelling to Dubai to conduct research has been sentenced to life in jail.
Matthew Hedges, 31, has been in a UAE prison for more than six months. The Durham University PhD candidate went to the country to research his thesis and was handed the sentence at an Abu Dhabi court on Wednesday in a hearing that lasted less than five minutes, with no lawyer present.
His wife, Daniela Tejada, 27, who was present in the courtroom, said Hedges began shaking when the verdict was read out.
“I am in complete shock and I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Matthew is innocent. The Foreign Office know this and have made it clear to the UAE authorities that Matthew is not a spy for them.”
She said the case had been handled “appallingly” with no one taking it seriously.
“The British government must take a stand now for Matthew, one of their citizens,” she said. “They say that the UAE is an ally, but the overwhelmingly arbitrary handling of Matt’s case indicates a scarily different reality, for which Matt and I are being made to pay a devastatingly high price.”
Hedges was detained on 5 May at Dubai airport as he was leaving the country.
He was arrested after an Emirati man apparently reported him to the authorities for “asking sensitive questions about some sensitive departments” and “seeking to gather classified information on the UAE”.
Hedges’ family said he had all the correct documentation in order to enter the UAE and was researching aspects of the UAE’s foreign and domestic security strategy, including the war in Yemen.
However, Emirati press claimed Hedges had confessed to the charges against him and the case had been passed to the state security court. There is no independent confirmation of this claim. Hedges was taken to court in Abu Dhabi twice in October, with the case being adjourned both times.
It was only after his third court appearance that he was allowed any legal representation.
The UAE’s attorney general, Hamad al-Shamsi, said Hedges was accused of “spying for a foreign country, jeopardising the military, political and economic security of the state”.
Hedges has denied the charges, and maintains he was in the country to research the impact of the Arab spring on the UAE’s foreign policy.
At prime minister’s questions in the Commons on Wednesday, Theresa May said she was “deeply disappointed and concerned” about the case and would be raising it with the Emirati authorities.
“The Foreign Office will remain in close contact with Matthew, his family and his lawyer,” she told MPs. “We will continue to do all we can to support them as they consider the next steps and we will continue to press this matter at the highest level with the Emiratis.”
The Middle Eastern studies specialist, who is originally from Exeter, had been in the country for two weeks when he was arrested.
His family say he spent more than five and a half months in solitary confinement after his arrest, with no indication of the reason for his detention.
Tejada said that during the first six weeks he was interrogated without a lawyer or consular access, and held in “inhuman” conditions under which his mental health deteriorated. During this time he was allegedly made to sign a document in Arabic which it has now been disclosed was a confession statement. Hedges does not speak or read Arabic.
Hedges’ friend and fellow academic Cinzia Bianco told the Guardian he had chosen to study the UAE because he had spent part of his childhood in the country and his father still lived there.
She said: “Matthew considered the UAE even safer and closer to him because he has personal connections out there, so this has been incredibly shocking.
“We weren’t expecting this verdict for a number of reasons. The first being that the UK and the UAE have longstanding relations, which are strategic on many levels and the case had been raised by the highest level of government with their counterparts in the UAE and they had received assurances.”
Bianco said the sentence would be concerning for British and other foreign academics working in the UAE.
“We are even more outraged because this could happen to any of us. It could happen to me next month when I am conducting my own field work.”
Bianco said that if there were no repercussions for the UAE other countries could follow suit.
She explained that Hedges would have had an initial contact in the UAE and would have made more connections during his work.
“You never know who you are going to speak to when you go out,” she said. “It is more of a connection on the ground and it leads to other people so you can’t get approval for every person that you are going to meet.”
The British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, both travelled to the UAE after Matthew’s detention became public to make representations on his behalf.
Hunt said the sentence “runs contrary to earlier assurances” and urged the UAE court to reconsider.
Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s director, said their worst fears had been realised, while the vice-chancellor of Durham University, Prof Stuart Corbridge, said it was doing what it could to get Bridges home safely and to support his family.
Hedges has 30 days to appeal against the verdict.
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