LONDON — The British government warned Wednesday of “repercussions” after the United Arab Emirates sentenced a British academic to life in prison on accusations of spying.
Matthew Hedges, a 31-year-old student at Durham University in northern England, was arrested May 5 at the Dubai International Airport after a two-week trip to the country. The university and his family say he was researching Emirati security and foreign policy for his PhD thesis.
Last month, UAE authorities charged Hedges with espionage. The academic was made to sign a document in Arabic — although he doesn’t speak Arabic — that was used as a confession statement.
A judge handed down the sentence during a five-minute court session Wednesday in Abu Dhabi.
“Today’s verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a statement. He said he raised the case with UAE authorities during a trip to Abu Dhabi last week.
“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,” he said.
The UAE is Britain’s fourth largest export market outside the European Union, and British officials have been working to strengthen those ties as their country prepares to leave the E.U. in March and negotiate new bilateral trade deals.
Hedges’s wife, Daniela Tejada, said Wednesday that she watched her husband shake as he received the sentence. “I am in complete shock and I don’t know what to do. Matthew is innocent,” she said in a statement. “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.”
For months, Hedges’s family members refrained from speaking out. British government officials advised that keeping the case out of the press would ease his sentence. Tajada told the Sunday Times in October she had felt “blackmailed.”
British consular officials were believed to have monitored Wednesday’s court session in Abu Dhabi.
Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, called it a “sham trial.” Page said that, domestically, the UAE has been cracking down on dissent, but internationally, it likes to present itself as a “a space for tolerance and openness — a lot of conferences are held there, there are a lot of academic links to the UAE.”
Hedges was unexpectedly released on bail last month after four months in solitary confinement. Family members said his health had deteriorated and he had been vomiting daily, after prison authorities supplied him with a cocktail of antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicine and sleeping pills.
British Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament on Wednesday that she was “deeply disappointed and concerned at today’s verdict” and would raise the case with UAE authorities “at the highest level.”
Hedges has 30 days to appeal the verdict.
In a statement on its website, Durham University said that Hedges began his PhD work in 2013 and that his research was nearing completion. “His academic colleagues speak highly of his work, noting both his diligence and level of scholarship, as well as his undoubted passion and care for the Arab Gulf and its people,” the university said.
Kristian Ulrichsen, an expert in the politics of the Gulf region currently at Rice University in Houston, noted that the verdict would probably have a chilling effect on future scholarship in the UAE, which has spent vast amounts of money in recent years to lure branches of prestigious western universities and museums.
“The UAE has presented itself as a secure hub for universities who want to do research in the region,” said Ulrichsen, who has also advised Hedges’s family since he was first detained. He said that the effect on the country’s reputation as a safe place to work could be profound.
“One hates to invoke ‘privilege’ in any way, but I think the assumption had been until now that if you were a western scholar whose research ran afoul of the authorities, the worst thing that could happen to you was that you’d be taken to the airport, or like me, denied entry. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which this is a game-changer.”
Theodore Karasik, a Washington-based scholar who spent a decade in the UAE, said: “It’s quite clear that Matt is a pawn in a larger game, which is inexcusable. This is a graduate student, and the UAE is creating an atmosphere of fear.”
The sentence could backfire on the UAE, he said, by deterring foreign businesses, as well as academics and journalists.
“Anybody who asks questions has to be aware of what’s going on,” Karasik said. “It makes for a challenging business environment when you throw foreign nationals who are graduate students into jail.”
Loveluck reported from Beirut. Liz Sly in Beirut and James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.