A British academic who was accused of spying for the UK government in the United Arab Emirates after travelling to Dubai to conduct research has been sentenced to life in jail.
Matthew Hedges, 31, has been in a UAE prison for more than six months. The Durham University student, who went to the country to research his PhD thesis, was handed the sentence at an Abu Dhabi court in a hearing that lasted less than five minutes, with no lawyer present.
Hedges was detained in May at Dubai airport as he was leaving the country, and was held in solitary confinement for five months.
The UAE attorney general, Hamad al-Shamsi, said Hedges was accused of “spying for a foreign country, jeopardising the military, political and economic security of the state”.
Hedges denies the charges, and maintains that he was in the country to research the impact of the Arab spring on the UAE’s foreign policy.
Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, who was in court, said: “I am in complete shock and I don’t know what to do. 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. The British government must take a stand now for Matthew, one of their citizens. They say that the UAE is an ally, but the overwhelmingly arbitrary handling of Matt’s case indicates a scarily different reality, for which Matt and I are being made to pay a devastatingly high price.
“This has been the worst six months of my life, let alone for Matt who was shaking when he heard the verdict. The UAE authorities should feel ashamed for such an obvious injustice. I am very scared for Matt. I don’t know where they are taking him or what will happen now. Our nightmare has gotten even worse.”
At prime minister’s questions in the Commons on Wednesday, Theresa May said she was “deeply disappointed and concerned” about the case and would be raising it with the Emirati authorities at the highest level.
“The Foreign Office will remain in close contact with Matthew, his family and his lawyer,” she told MPs. “We will continue to do all we can to support them as they consider the next steps and we will continue to press this matter at the highest level with the Emiratis.”
Britain’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said he was shocked by the sentence and urged the UAE court to reconsider.
He said he had raised Hedges’ case with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and the foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, during his visit to Abu Dhabi just over a week ago.
“Today’s verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances.
“… I have repeatedly made clear that the handling of this case by the UAE authorities will have repercussions for the relationship between our two countries, which has to be built on trust. I regret the fact that we have reached this position and I urge the UAE to reconsider.”
Hunt said consular officials had been in contact with Hedges and his family. “We will continue to do everything possible to support him.”
Hedges’ MP, Ben Bradshaw, said on Twitter he was appalled at the sentence passed on his innocent constituent and was seeking urgent clarification.