A University of Exeter alumnus has been given a life sentence in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), following charges of spying on behalf of the UK government. Hedges maintains that he was in the UAE undertaking research on the country’s security strategy for his PhD at Durham University.
Matthew Hedges, 31, is an Exeter resident and previously completed a degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the University. News of Hedges’ sentencing has led many to further question the legality of his detainment and process, alongside possible violations of Matthew’s human rights. A petition for Hedges’ immediate release has gathered over 600 signatures from the academic community worldwide.
In response to the sentence – passed on Wednesday 21 November – Professor Stuart Corbridge, Durham University’s Vice-Chancellor, said that “There has been no information given on what basis Matt was handed this sentence and no reason to believe that Matt was conducting anything other than legitimate academic research.
“We are devastated to learn that Matt Hedges has been sentenced to life in prison following his detention and trial in the United Arab Emirates. Following a period in which he was detained in conditions which breached his human rights this judgement has been delivered in the absence of anything resembling due process or a fair trial.”
“Following a period in which he was detained in conditions which breached his human rights this judgement has been delivered in the absence of anything resembling a fair trial”
An official statement by Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter, concurs that “Matt was in the UAE to carry out legitimate academic research, and has an undoubted passion and concern for the Arab Gulf and its people. It is absolutely vital that academics the world over are free to conduct research without fear of interference or arrest. Exeter will continue to do whatever it can to ensure Matt and his family can return home as soon as possible, and calls upon the authorities to work actively towards securing his return.”
The sentence follows Hedges’ formal charging in October, as well as a six-month period of solitary confinement. Under UAE law a life sentence constitutes 25 years imprisonment, after which Hedges may be deported. Hedges’ family told the AFP news agency that “The hearing lasted less than five minutes, and his lawyer was not present.” Daniela Tejada, Matthew’s wife, maintains that his case had been handled “appallingly”. “Matthew is innocent. The UAE authorities should feel ashamed for such obvious injustice. […] I am very scared for Matt. I don’t know where they are taking him or what will happen now.”
Hiba Zayadin, a researcher who works with the Middle Eastern division of the non-profit organisation Human Rights Watch, has suggested that Hedges’ “detention and prosecution in the UAE violated his right to fair trial” on various accounts, including five months in pretrial detention, prevention of access to a lawyer until his trial, and “possible prolonged solitary confinement”. She further states that “This is yet another example of an authoritarian regime’s fundamental lack of respect for the rule of law.”
Attorney General Dr Hamad Saif Al Shamsi, when confirming the sentence, said that “The defendant confessed in full detail to his crimes during investigations where he was accorded his full rights and assurances as per the UAE constitution and state laws to fair and transparent trial”, and that British embassy representatives had been present in court. Regarding the charges levelled at Hedges, Al Shamsi has said that they include “spying for a foreign country, jeopardising the military, political and economic security of the state”.
In a tweet, the University’s Institute of Islamic and Arabic Studies’ (IAIS) Centre for Gulf Studies said that “It is an alarming day for human rights and academia today. Academics around the world/especially [sic] those in the UAE should be dismayed by this decision.”
A petition, in the form of an open letter to the UAE calling for Hedges’ “immediate release”, has been circulating amongst the international academic community since 22 October. Dr Marc Valeri, an Associate Professor at the University’s Centre for Gulf Studies, is gathering signatures on the petition, which has now been signed by over 600 scholars from around the world. The signatories stress that Hedges’ detainment “places into question existing and future academic ties between the UK and the UAE.
“British scholars can no longer regard the Emirates as a safe place for legitimate academic research, despite the efforts of the UAE government to encourage educational exchanges between UK institutions and the UAE. By his unjustified detention, prolonged arrest in solitary confinement, lack of access to proper legal advice and limited consular access, Matthew’s rights have been and continue to be denied by the UAE authorities.”
“British scholars can no longer regard the Emirates as a safe place for legitimate academic research”
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed both shock and disappointment at the verdict, saying that it is “not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances.” The UK has retained a close relationship with the UAE since the state’s formation in 1971, including the announcement of a defence partnership and plans to trade military technology in 2012.
Hedges retains the right to appeal before the Federal Supreme Court for a retrial for 30 days after his sentencing.