UAE bows to pressure, jailed UK researcher freed

United Kingdom PhD researcher Matthew Hedges, who was sentenced to life in prison on 21 November for ‘spying’ in the United Arab Emirates, has been pardoned with immediate effect and has been released.

Hedges arrived back in the UK on 27 November, where he was welcomed by his wife, Daniela Tejada, who had pressed the UK government to secure his release, and members of his family.

Hedges praised his wife for being “brave and strong”.

He said: “I don’t know where to begin with thanking people for securing my release.”

Tejada said: “I am so happy to have my Matt home. Thank you for the overwhelming support we have received, especially from the embassy in UAE and the Foreign Office. We are overjoyed and exhausted.”

Hedges has always maintained his innocence, but even as they announced his release the UAE continued to allege that he had been using his PhD research as a cover to collect sensitive economic data and insight on its military for the UK government.

Prosecutors said he had confessed and at the news conference announcing his release on officials played a video, which they did not allow members of the media to record and which they said showed him admitting to being a captain in MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence service.

A UAE official said his enquiries in UAE went “far beyond” academic research and he was “100% a secret service operative”, Sky News reported.

Nevertheless, Hedges was issued with a full “presidential pardon” just five days after his conviction. The announcement was made on National Day for the UAE, a day on which pardons are traditionally announced, with 785 pardons being made this year.

Mounting pressure

The announcement came after mounting international pressure, particularly from the UK government, and widespread condemnation from the academic world, including his current and former universities of Durham and Exeter.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the pardon was “fantastic news” but did not accept the charges against Hedges.

"Fantastic news about Matthew Hedges. Although we didn't agree with charges we are grateful to UAE govt for resolving issue speedily," he tweeted.

In a later interview on 26 November with BBC Radio 4, he said: “We never saw any evidence for these charges against Matthew Hedges, and we made that clear.

“And I think the UAE authorities to their credit have been willing to listen to us in the past few days.

“But the main thing now is that they have made this very important gesture. Matthew Hedges is coming home, and everyone recognises that he has been through a very tough time, but that Daniela, his wife, has been to hell and back frankly, and she fought incredibly hard. And having met her last week, she is a very determined lady.”

Daniela Tejada, had welcomed the news, saying she could not wait to have Matt back home. She told BBC Radio 4: “I'm just so happy and so relieved.”

"It's been an absolutely nightmarish seven months already.”

Rejected claims

She rejected the latest claims being made against her husband. Hunt said he had “never seen any evidence” that the spying charges were true.

Security experts say there is no such thing as the rank of captain in MI6, adding credence to suggestions that the video evidence is flawed and a previous claim by Hedges’ wife that she was “willing to admit to anything” to help secure his freedom.

Hunt said the release came after the UAE had had time to reflect on its relationship with the UK.

Hedges was arrested on 5 May at the end of a two-week visit to investigate the country’s security strategy in the wake of the Arab Spring protests.

His wife said he spent six months in solitary confinement “without access to legal counsel”.

According to a spokesperson for Hedges' family, he was sentenced after a five-minute hearing without legal representation and based on a document he was forced to sign, which was written in Arabic, a language he does not speak or read.