UK student sentenced to life for ‘spying’ is ‘terrified’

United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has indicated that he has had constructive discussions with United Arab Emirates officials about the case of Durham University PhD researcher Matthew Hedges, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Federal Appeal Court of Abu Dhabi in the UAE.

The UAE’s UK ambassador, Sulaiman Almazroui, said on Friday that there was hope for an “amicable solution”.

Hedges, 31, who appeared in court with his wife Daniela Tejada and officials from the British Embassy on 21 November, is said by his wife to be “absolutely terrified” and suffering from panic attacks.

He had been arrested in May at the end of a two-week trip researching the Emirates’ post-Arab Spring security response for his PhD thesis, and has been held in solitary confinement for six months.

He was accused of “spying for and on behalf of a foreign state”, with the allegation that he had used a study trip as "cover" to gather information for the United Kingdom government.

The federal court issued a statement saying it had sentenced Hedges to life imprisonment “after being convicted of spying on the UAE and providing sensitive security and intelligence information to third parties”.

He has a right to challenge the ruling with the State Security Department of the Federal Supreme Court within 30 days.

His family have appealed for clemency.

After the sentencing, Hunt said it was “unacceptable” for a country which claims to be a friend and ally of the UK, and threatened the UAE with “serious diplomatic consequences”.

No legal representation

A spokeswoman for the Hedges family said he had been sentenced “after a five-minute hearing in which he had no legal representation”, CNN reported.

But UAE’s Ambassador to the UK Almazroui said on Friday that the conviction was not the result of a show trial and judges had spent a month evaluating the evidence in the case, which had been “compelling”.

Hedges’ wife said she was disappointed by the UAE saying due process had taken place, when her husband had spent six months in solitary confinement “without access to legal counsel”.

According to the National newspaper in the UAE, his life sentence includes a maximum of 25 years in jail followed by deportation.

‘In complete shock’

Hedges’ wife has issued a statement saying she is in “complete shock” and “very scared” for her husband.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

Tejada said her husband 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.”

UK Foreign Secretary Hunt said in a statement: “I am deeply shocked and disappointed. Today’s verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances.”

He said he has raised the case at the highest levels of the UAE government and repeatedly made clear that the handling of the case by the UAE authorities “will have repercussions for the relationship between our two countries” and he urged the UAE to “reconsider”.

According to the National, the case has been discussed extensively between the UAE authorities and the UK government over the past five months.

Confiscation of research

The court ruled that Hedges would be deported from the country after the execution of the sentence and would be charged the costs of the legal case.

It also ordered the confiscation of all of his equipment, devices, research and studies.

Hedges was detained on 5 May at Dubai airport as he was leaving the country. He was held in solitary confinement for five months.

The Hedges family spokeswoman said he was forced to sign a document in Arabic, even though he doesn’t speak or read Arabic. "It has now been disclosed [it] was a confession statement," she said, according to CNN.

In a statement in October, the UAE government said: "The attorney general of United Arab Emirates confirmed… that Matthew Hedges, a British citizen, has been charged with spying for and on behalf of a foreign state, jeopardising the military, economy and political security of the UAE."

At a court hearing in October, a court-appointed lawyer maintained Hedges’ innocence, arguing that the evidence provided, which were his notes from his research, did not contain anything confidential, PA News reported. That hearing was postponed until 21 November.

Before that hearing, his wife, Daniela Tejada, had urged the UK government to deny that he was spying for them.

Hedges had been released on 29 October, on condition of wearing an ankle bracelet monitoring his movements, and had been staying in Dubai pending the 21 November hearing.

This story was updated on 23 November.