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Middle East

UAE considering clemency request for British academic sentenced to life in prison for spying

  • UAE envoy says Matthew Hedges was convicted based on compelling evidence
PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 7:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 7:21pm

The family of a British academic who was convicted of spying in the United Arab Emirates has appealed for clemency, the country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom has said.

Sulaiman Hamid Almazroui told a press conference in London on Friday that his government was considering the appeal and would respond in due course but he defended the process under which Matthew Hedges was convicted.

He said the espionage case against the 31-year-old Hedges “was an extremely serious case” and that he had been convicted based on “compelling evidence” after a full and fair judicial process.

“The crimes Mr Hedges was accused of are extremely serious. For the UAE, like all countries, protecting our national security must be our first priority,” he said.

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

The ambassador denied claims that Hedges received only a brief court hearing before being convicted on very serious charges and said the British academic had proper legal representation in court.

The jailing of the Durham University PhD student sparked a public outcry this week, with the Gulf state being accused of a miscarriage of justice.

Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, had said she believed the UK government had been putting its interests above her husband’s fight for freedom.

She said had spoken to her husband on Thursday night and he had complained of feeling unwell.

She accused the government of “stepping on eggshells instead of taking a firm stance”, saying her husband’s case was only taken seriously when he was released on bail last month after months spent in solitary confinement.

Hedges, originally from Exeter, was arrested at Dubai airport on 5 May. He says he is innocent and was in the country conducting research on the UAE’s security strategy for his PhD thesis, but prosecutors claimed he confessed to charges.

Tejada told BBC Breakfast her conversations with her husband had been very closely monitored so there was a limit to what she could tell him of the efforts to secure his release.

“I tried to reassure him and to tell him that he had 10 times as much support as before,” Tejada said.

Hedges has been in a UAE prison for more than six months. He went to the UAE to research his thesis and was sentenced at a court in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday in a hearing that lasted less than five minutes, with no lawyer present.

His wife, who was in the courtroom, said Hedges began shaking when the verdict was read out.

The UAE has since said it wants to reach an amicable conclusion to the dispute.

The apparent change in tone, which was viewed as a possible precursor to an act of clemency, came after the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, warned of serious diplomatic consequences if Hedges were not released, and followed a torrent of cross-party criticism in the UK accusing the UAE courts of a miscarriage of justice.

Consultations took place overnight in the UAE with the foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Academics have said Hedges may have inadvertently put himself at risk by his “sharp analysis” of the UAE’s shifting security politics. The country presents itself as a modernising, socially liberal force in the Gulf, but dissent is repressed.

On Thursday, Tejada said she wanted Hunt to do whatever it took to bring her husband home. She said it was absurd that the UAE had found Hedges guilty of spying on an ally of Britain, and accused the Foreign Office of refusing to take the case seriously at the outset.

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

Tejada said the Foreign Office had repeatedly told her it had no duty of care for Hedges. “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,” she said.

But in a later statement issued after her meeting with Hunt, she toned down her criticism, saying: “[Hunt] has assured me that he and his team are doing everything in their power to get Matt free and return him home to me. This is not a fight I can win alone and I thank the Foreign Office for now standing up for one of their citizens.”

With additional reporting by Associated Press