The distraught wife of a young academic jailed for life in Abu Dhabi yesterday has told of their ‘living nightmare’.
As Jeremy Hunt promised retaliation, Daniela Tejada insisted her husband Matthew Hedges was innocent and said she now feared for his safety.
The 31-year-old was convicted of being a spy in a secret ‘kangaroo court’ hearing that lasted just five minutes. Lacking even a lawyer, he was left shaking in the dock as the devastating verdict was handed down in Arabic.
Matthew Hedges, 31, was convicted of being a spy in a ‘kangaroo court’ hearing. He is pictured with his wife, Daniela Tejada
Miss Tejada, 27, said: ‘I am in complete shock and I don’t know what to do. Matthew is innocent. I am very scared for him. I don’t know where they are taking him or what will happen now. Our nightmare has gotten even worse.’
Immediately after the hearing Mr Hunt warned the United Arab Emirates of ‘serious diplomatic consequences’. The Foreign Secretary later said: ‘I thought I had some understanding that this was going to be resolved in a satisfactory way. That hasn’t happened.’
British options are believed to include ending military cooperation with the Gulf state. UK universities are preparing a boycott.
Immediately after the hearing Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned the United Arab Emirates of ‘serious diplomatic consequences’
Staff at Birmingham University are due to vote today on an academic boycott of its £100million Dubai campus (pictured), which opened in September
Mr Hunt met Mohammed Bin Zayed, the Emirati Crown Prince, last week and assured him that Mr Hedges was not a spy. Whitehall
Sources have given the same assurance to the Daily Mail.
The Durham University student was arrested at Dubai airport on May 5 at the end of a two-week research trip for his PhD thesis on the security strategies of Gulf states following the Arab Spring.
He was held in solitary confinement for six months and forced to sign a confession written in Arabic during interrogation.
This confession – together with his research notes – was enough for the court in Abu Dhabi to pronounce him guilty yesterday of espionage on behalf of Britain.
Mr Hedges played no part in his five-minute ‘trial’ and had no lawyer present. In the House of Commons, Theresa May announced she was ‘deeply disappointed and concerned’.
Mr Hunt said: ‘Today’s verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances.
‘We see absolutely no evidence for the charges laid against him.
‘We will do all we can to get him home. 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.’
Mrs Tejada, a Colombian-born marketing and PR executive, said after the hearing, which she attended: ‘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.
‘The Foreign Office 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 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.’
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi receiving Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt at the Presidential Palace in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi
Last night Miss Tejada was flying back to the UK for her own safety, according to her MP Ben Bradshaw.
The Labour MP, whose constituency covers Exeter University where the couple met as students, said: ‘It is unbelievable. I went to see the UAE ambassador and he said Matthew had made a mistake and been naïve, and that it would all be sorted out, so this has come as a complete shock.
‘The diplomatic strategy of the Foreign Office has failed. It is quite clear that the softly-softly behind-the-scenes talking to the Emiratis has not worked.
‘We have very close economic, military and educational ties with the Emiratis, and we need to start using those to ensure my innocent constituent can come home.
‘When a British citizen is treated like this abroad, the full weight of the British Government needs to come down in support.’
Miss Tejada is due to meet Mr Hunt today.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said the situation was gravely worrying, adding: ‘The UAE are supposed to be allies.’
Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, suggested Britain should end military cooperation.
Staff at Birmingham University are due to vote today on an academic boycott of its £100million Dubai campus, which opened in September. Hopes were high when a depressed Mr Hedges was released on bail two weeks ago with an electronic tag, and allowed to stay in Dubai. His wife flew out to look after him and try to build up his poor health in the run-up to yesterday’s hearing.
Last night the country’s attorney general, Dr Hamed Saif Al Shamsi, claimed Mr Hedges had ‘confessed to the court the charges against him … and acknowledged in detail the crimes he committed’.
He reportedly said Mr Hedges tried ‘to secure confidential information to potentially pass to a foreign agency’.
Gulf News, an English language paper loyal to the regime, said Mr Bridges was reported by an Emirati who thought he was ‘acting suspiciously, asking sensitive questions about some sensitive departments, and seeking to gather classified information on the UAE’.
Dr Al Shamsi conceded that an appeal would be allowed.
Radha Stirling, of the campaign group Detained in Dubai, called the hearing a ‘kangaroo court’ and said the verdict had sent shockwaves through the ex-pat community.
Professor John Williams, who is Mr Hedges’ supervisor at Durham University’s school of government and international affairs, said: ‘We are desperately worried about Matt’s welfare. He’s an innocent man who’s been subjected to a terrible period of detention.
‘The process of the trial has lacked any legitimacy or credibility and his health is not good.’
More than 650 academics worldwide recently signed a letter declaring that ‘scholars can no longer regard the Emirates as a safe place for legitimate academic research’.
Durham’s vice-chancellor Stuart Corbridge said the court’s judgement had been ‘delivered in the absence of anything resembling due process or a fair trial’.
Mr Hedges has described his PhD as ‘researching the effects of the Arab Spring on the Gulf States’ adding: ‘The research specifically examines the region’s evolving national security strategy.’
More than a million Britons visit the UAE every year, with Dubai’s beaches a major attraction.
Mr Hedges grew up partly in Dubai with his mother and step-father and had jobs there before taking up his academic research.
The UAE’s authoritarian regime tolerates little public criticism of its monarchy or policies. Last year Mr Hedges co-authored an article in an academic journal on the Muslim Brotherhood, political movement the UAE regards as an enemy. But his wife said he fully understood the sensitivities of the region and would not have done anything to offend his hosts.
It is thought the regime grew suspicious of him during his two-week research trip when he was interviewing sources for his thesis. While his lawyer says the information he gleaned was not controversial, the Emiratis might not have seen it that way.
Trial condemned as an affront to justice
Matthew Hedges’ trial has been condemned as an affront to justice. He was not allowed to give evidence at the closed hearing before being sentenced to life in jail inside five minutes.
His court-appointed lawyer, who does not speak English, was not even there when the shocking verdict came in.
The UAE authorities insist the trial was fair and transparent and the accused admitted spying.
But Mrs Hedges’ confession was allegedly signed under duress and written for him in Arabic, a language he does not speak. The secretive state security court does not allow journalists or the public to attend hearings.
Radha Stirling, of the campaign group Detained in Dubai, said: ‘We have dealt with in excess of 10,000 cases over the past decade.
‘The UAE has become so confident that it believes throwing money around the UK and US is a licence to jail, torture, kidnap and kill. If the UAE is allowed to continue in this manner, like the recent Khashoggi murder, nobody is safe.’