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Middle East

Wife of jailed academic says UK Foreign Office did not take UAE case seriously

  • Daniela Tejada to meet Jeremy Hunt after her husband, Matthew Hedges, was sentenced to life in prison in the UAE for spying
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 10:08pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 10:46pm

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is to meet the wife of a British academic jailed for life in the United Arab Emirates on allegations of spying, saying he is prepared to curtail diplomatic cooperation with the UAE, one of the UK’s closest Gulf allies.

Daniela Tejada, her voice breaking as she spoke to the BBC’s Today programme on Thursday after returning from Dubai, where she saw Matthew Hedges being sentenced, said she wanted the foreign secretary to do whatever it took to bring her husband home.

She said it was absurd the UAE had found him guilty of spying on an ally of Britain and accused the Foreign Office of refusing to take the case seriously when it started.

‘Shocked’ UK warns UAE of repercussions over spy student sentence

Claiming the Foreign Office repeatedly told her it had no duty of care for Hedges, a PhD student at Durham University, Tejada said: “I was under the impression that they were putting their interests with the UAE above a British citizen’s right to freedom and a fair trial. They were treading on eggshells.

“There was no reason why the UAE should think a close ally should be sending an undercover agent to spy on them. It is absurd.”

She said her husband was shaking in court as he had his sentence read out and had to ask the translator for it to be stated a second time. Tejada was given no chance to speak to Hedges after he was taken away and is seeking assurances that he will no longer be kept in solitary confinement.

Tejada said any confessions extracted from her husband when he was in solitary confinement for six weeks without access to a counsellor were worthless. “It means there was no due process and the evidence is unfounded and should not be used against him,” she said.

She said Hedges was given legal advice only after three court hearings and the Foreign Office did not act upon her weekly requests for it to be more proactive.

The UAE said the ruling would be subject to an appeal within a month, and there are signs the country’s diplomatic service is aware the case is seriously damaging UK-UAE relations.

The UAE presents itself as a modernising, socially liberal force in the Gulf, but dissent is repressed.

Hunt held what was described as “a very frank conversation” with Sulaiman Hamid Almazroui, the UAE’s ambassador to London, on Thursday morning.

The UAE has built strong support on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons but the case has put this under strain. The Tory MPs Johnny Mercer and Crispin Blunt condemned the academic’s jailing and called for the British government to be resilient.

Mercer tweeted: “This is ridiculous. Our defence assistance, mentoring and intelligence relationships alone with this country should preclude absurd things like this happening.

“From a friend and partner, simply unacceptable. Consequences must be immediate until he is released.”

Blunt said: “If he is not released, I don’t see why we should be committed to their defence.”

In the House of Lords on Thursday the government came under cross-party pressure to warn the UAE that the Hedges case had to be heard on appeal immediately or there would be serious consequences for relations.

Lady Goldie, speaking for the government, said the Foreign Office was relaying to the UAE “in the starkest and bluntest terms what the reaction had been in the UK to the case”.

She said the foreign secretary was seeking assurances about the timing of Hedges’ appeal hearing, his conditions in prison and access to family and lawyers.

She said there was no immediate plan to change the travel advice to the 120,000 British citizens resident in the UAE or to the 11 British universities represented there.

Speaking on Wednesday, Hunt said: “The UAE is supposed to be a friend and ally of Britain’s. We’ve given them repeated assurances about Matthew. If we can’t resolve this, there are going to be serious diplomatic consequences.”

UAE says UK avoiding case of British ‘spy’ detained at Dubai airport

Hunt raised the case with the Abu Dhabi crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, earlier this month and had been privately optimistic his representation would bear fruit.

Professor Clive Jones of Durham University said Hedges had been working on a thesis about civil-military relations in the UAE since the Arab spring, based on readily accepted literature. He had lived in the country on and off since he was nine and had written speeches for senior figures in the government.

“There was nothing clandestine or covert in any of the material he had been using up to date in the thesis,” Jones said.

“He went to the United Arab Emirates to conduct a series of interviews to help flesh out some of the theories and some of the empirical evidence that he had actually collected.

“If we had any inkling that Matt in any sense shape or form was going to be in danger then of course we would not have agreed to let him go.”

He said there would have to be a moratorium on field research by British academics working in the Gulf.