The story of British graduate student Matthew Hedges has been largely out of international headlines for the six months of his confinement in a UAE prison on spy charges — much of that including solitary confinement — while the more well-known case of recently released American pastor Andrew Brunson, previously held in Turkey for two years on similar charges, held the world’s attention.
That changed today after a UAE court sentenced the 31-year old PhD student at Durham University to life in prison after he was found guilty of spying in the United Arab Emirates. He was arrested last May while attempting to leave the country at Dubai’s international airport after what he said was a research trip related to his studies in Middle East politics and history. Both his family and the UK government have consistently decried the accusation as false and trumped-up, while British diplomats have consistently pressured Dubai to release Hedges.
Specifically the Abu Dhabi court found him guilty of “spying for or on behalf of” the UK government based on a confession he was forced to sign in Arabic — a language his family says he doesn’t speak. Hedges wife says he was repeatedly interrogated without a lawyer or consular access during his first months of confinement, during which time he signed the Arabic document.
In the UAE a “life sentence” is 25 years, after which Hedges is to be deported. News of the verdict initiated a flurry of diplomatic activity, with British PM Theresa May weighing in saying the foreign secretary was “urgently seeking a call with [UAE] Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed,” according to the BBC. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was “deeply shocked and disappointed” by the verdict.
Meanwhile Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, who was present for the sentencing said she was in “complete shock” and issued the following statement to reporters:
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.
This whole case has been handled appallingly from the very beginning with no-one taking Matthew’s case seriously.
She’s urged UK authorities to “take a stand now” and condemned the UAE court, saying it “should feel ashamed for such an obvious injustice”. Tejada added, “I don’t know where they are taking him or what will happen now. Our nightmare has gotten even worse.”
Hedges’ family had previously expressed concern for his mental health after lengthy stints and solitary confinement and being fed a “cocktail of medication” by guards. International reports suggest his mental state has rapidly deteriorated amidst poor treatment and the shock of the charges against him.
Meanwhile some UK officials have gone so far as to question the close security and defense relationship Britain has the UAE as the pro-Saudi GCC state is a major buyer of UK arms.
Tory MP Crispin Blunt told PM May during a Prime Minister’s Questions parliament session that she should make clear to the UAE that “if he is not released, I don’t see why we should be committed to their defense”.
Foreign Minister Hunt said he’s pursued getting the charges dismissed with “highest levels of the UAE government” and the verdict “is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances”.
However, we doubt that a single weapons contract will actually be canceled, despite the hollow threats of British officials. Of course, there’s also the possibility that the UAE government has more evidence than it’s revealing to the public, and that UK intelligence officials and political leaders know this.
But we expect that if Hedges really were a spy he likely would have been quietly released long ago because London would have actually brought the heat down, rather than meager and minimal statements of “urgently seeking a call” with Abu Dhabi.