British authorities reacted with anger and threatened the United Arab Emirates with serious diplomatic repercussions after a court in the Gulf state sentenced a British student to life in prison for spying. The jailing of 31-year-old Matthew Hedges visibly shocked British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who believed he'd been given assurances 10 days ago on a visit to the UAE the student would be freed.
"We are in a state of shock about it. We see absolutely no evidence for the charges laid against him. We are very concerned for his welfare. If they can't resolve this, there will be serious diplomatic consequences," says Jeremy Hunt about the ruling, which has plunged Britain's relations with the Gulf state into crisis.
Hedges, a student at Britain's Durham University, was sentenced Wednesday after a five-minute court appearance. He was detained at Dubai Airport on May 5 and accused of spying in the UAE. Authorities said the PhD student's research in the country for his thesis on the Gulf state's security and internal policies following the Arab Spring was a pretext for carrying out surveillance for a "foreign agency."
Durham University has dismissed the allegation vigorously. As has his wife, Daniela Tejada, who was in court for the sentencing and has branded the handling of his case by British diplomats as "appalling."
"Matthew is innocent. The Foreign Office knows this and they have made it clear to the UAE authorities that Matthew is not a spy for them. 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 Matthew's case indicates a scarily different reality, for which Matt and I are being made to pay a devastatingly high price," she said.
She says she was told not to speak out publicly about the case for months by British diplomats, who argued it would make it hard to persuade UAE authorities to free him. But Hedges' wife and friends became increasingly alarmed. Hedges was kept in solitary confinement for five months, fed a cocktail of drugs and had very restricted access to British consular officials, they say.
In a statement following the ruling, the UAE attorney general said Hedges "pleaded guilty before the court ... to all charges, after the court faced him with compelling legal evidence concluded after thorough judicial investigations." Hamad Saif Al Shamsi said the Briton was "accorded his full rights and assurances as per the UAE constitution and state laws to fair and transparent trial."
But Hedges had no legal representation at the hearing, and his family say he was forced to sign a confession written in Arabic, even though he doesn't speak the language.
In a statement Durham University said, "We are devastated to learn that Matt Hedges has been sentenced to life in prison ... This judgement has been delivered in the absence of anything resembling due process or a fair trial."
Wednesday in the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers, "We are of course deeply disappointed and concerned at today's verdict. We are raising it with the Emirati authorities at the highest level."
Hedges, who was born and grew up in the UAE, was detained after interviewing local officials for his theses. According to local media, one of them became suspicious and reported him. Britain has clashed with UAE rulers in recent weeks over its human rights record and its role in the war in Yemen, where its forces have been part of the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
On his trip to the Gulf earlier this month Hunt clashed reportedly with Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, when he urged them to end their blockade of Yemen.
A former British foreign minister Crispin Blunt told the BBC the UAE is an important and long-standing ally, but it shouldn't overestimate the friendship, saying the case has put Britain in an "outrageous position." He added, "It is important the Emirati authorities get this sorted as soon as possible."
He laced his comments, though, with astonishment that given the close relations between the two countries, including between the British and Emirati royal families, that Britain finds itself "in this position."