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