UAE lead­ers con­sider clemency for aca­demic jailed for life on spy charge

Western Morning News (Saturday) - - News - BY SAM BLEWETT

Clemency for an Ex­eter aca­demic jailed for life in the United Arab Emi­rates on a spy­ing charge is be­ing con­sid­ered by the Gulf state’s lead­ers, an of­fi­cial an­nounced as he de­fended the na­tion’s ju­di­cial sys­tem.

Diplo­matic ef­forts to free Matthew Hedges, a Durham Univer­sity PhD stu­dent, are be­ing led by For­eign Sec­re­tary Jeremy Hunt amid an out­cry af­ter the 31-year-old was handed the sen­tence ear­lier this week.

Mr Hedges’ wife, Daniela Te­jada, has lob­bied for his re­lease and won as­sur­ances from Mr Hunt that the Govern­ment is “now stand­ing up for” her hus­band, af­ter she claimed it had ini­tially put for­eign re­la­tions above his lib­erty.

In a state­ment at the UAE em­bassy in Lon­don on Fri­day, am­bas­sador Su­laiman Al­mazroui praised the close­ness be­tween the two na­tions as he said clemency is be­ing con­sid­ered for the “ex­tremely se­ri­ous case”.

“Mr Hedges’ fam­ily have made a re­quest for clemency and the govern­ment is study­ing that re­quest,” he said.

“Be­cause of the strength of that re­la­tion­ship we are hope­ful that an am­i­ca­ble so­lu­tion can be reached.”

He also made ef­forts to de­fend the ju­di­cial process, deny­ing it was a “five-minute show trial” and claim­ing three judges eval­u­ated “com­pelling ev­i­dence” over three hear­ings to make their rul­ing.

He did not ad­dress whether the aca­demic was given ad­e­quate le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion through­out the process, which Ms Te­jada has said he lacked.

She swiftly re­buked the am­bas­sador’s de­fence, say­ing her hus­band had been held in soli­tary con­fine­ment for more than five months with­out charge or lawyer, and when he did re­ceive con­sular ac­cess he was not able to “talk openly”.

“The ju­di­cial sys­tem in the UAE and the UK can­not be com­pared,” she said in a state­ment. We have asked for clemency, we will wait to see what hap­pens.”

The UAE has a his­tory of is­su­ing a wave of par­dons in an­tic­i­pa­tion of its na­tional day, which falls on De­cem­ber 2. De­spite the diplo­matic ef­forts be­ing made, Ms Te­jada said her hus­band re­mains in fear that he will have to serve the en­tirety of his sen­tence.

“He is not well. He men­tioned that his panic at­tacks have be­come worse than they were be­fore. How­ever, he did say that he has ac­cess to a doc­tor,” she told the BBC.

“I wasn’t al­lowed to know where he is, so still don’t know any­thing about his where­abouts, and I think he’s just ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fied at the idea of hav­ing to spend the rest of his life be­hind bars for an of­fence he hasn’t com­mit­ted.”

There are hopes that the UAE will show some le­niency, with the head of its for­eign min­istry’s le­gal depart­ment, Abdulla Al Naqbi, also say­ing the na­tion wants to find an “am­i­ca­ble so­lu­tion”.

How­ever, he added that “com­pelling and pow­er­ful ev­i­dence” had proved es­pi­onage, in­clud­ing com­puter anal­y­sis and an al­leged con­fes­sion.

‘He men­tioned that his panic at­tacks have be­come worse’

Daniela Te­jada

Travel has never been with­out its haz­ards, as more than a thousand Brits sit­ting in for­eign prisons know to their cost.

The char­ity Pris­on­ers Abroad is presently sup­port­ing 1,017 Bri­tish peo­ple held over­seas.

Given that Brits made a to­tal of 72 mil­lion trips to for­eign coun­tries in 2017 alone, that num­ber is per­haps sur­pris­ing only be­cause it’s fairly low.

Many a mis­be­hav­ing drunken tourist must con­sider him­self (or her­self) lucky not to en­joy an un­ex­pect­edly ex­tended hol­i­day.

But oc­ca­sion­ally things turn sin­is­ter, as they did for Matthew Hedges, the Durham Univer­sity PhD stu­dent, orig­i­nally from Ex­eter.

Mr Hedges has been lan­guish­ing in a prison in the United Arab Emi­rates since May, and last week was sen­tenced to life im­pris­on­ment for “spy­ing” by a court in Abu Dhabi.

All the ev­i­dence points to Mr Hedges be­ing what he says he is – an in­no­cent stu­dent who made lo­cals sus­pi­cious by ask­ing too many ques­tions.

An­other Bri­tish ci­ti­zen, Nazanin Zaghari-Rat­cliffe, is in prison in Iran, also al­legedly for spy­ing.

In both cases our For­eign Of­fice seems to have been re­mark­ably in­ept. Boris John­son, when he was For­eign Sec­re­tary, man­aged to worsen Mrs Zaghar­iRat­cliffe’s predica­ment with ill-cho­sen and in­ac­cu­rate com­ments about her rea­sons for be­ing in Tehran.

As for Mr Hedges, few of us knew any­thing about his or­deal un­til his con­vic­tion last week. Ac­cord­ing to his wife, the For­eign Of­fice had ad­vised the fam­ily to keep it all low-key.

As it hap­pens, Mr John­son was For­eign Sec­re­tary when Mr Hedges was first locked up, and it’s hard to imag­ine his depart­ment fail­ing to men­tion a spy­ing charge to their boss.

The new For­eign Sec­re­tary, Jeremy Hunt, has been hold­ing talks with his coun­ter­part in the UAE.

When those are done, he needs to hold stern talks with his se­nior of­fi­cials.

Low-key may have been the style of diplo­macy in a qui­eter era, but it is clearly out­dated. All the ev­i­dence in to­day’s world of so­cial me­dia is that the more noise you make, the more likely you are to suc­ceed.

It’s not hard to imag­ine an Arab na­tion mis­tak­ing a low-key re­sponse for a tacit ad­mis­sion of guilt.

If the For­eign Of­fice has not been naive, then the other ex­pla­na­tion is far more cyn­i­cal. The UAE buys nearly £250 bil­lion of Bri­tish-made weapons in a good year, and we hope that Mr Hedges was not sac­ri­ficed on the prin­ci­ple that the cus­tomer is al­ways right.

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