The Case of the Student Spy in the UAE Isn't Over

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The return of Matthew Hedges, the British researcher pardoned by the United Arab Emirates after being sentenced to life imprisonment for spying, ends a nightmare for his family.

“No one should ever have to go through what he did and it will take him time to heal and recover,” his wife, Daniele Tejada, said in a statement. “To say we are happy is an understatement.”

There is relief, too, in the British government, which had pressed the Emiratis for Hedges’ release, while always denying the allegation that the Durham University student was an operative of MI6.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who personally led the diplomatic effort, welcomed the “fantastic news.” But, he added, “we should never have got to here, and we are deeply perplexed as to how it happened.”

It is now essential for Hunt to keep up diplomatic pressure on the Emirati authorities to explain their actions. Britain and the UAE would both benefit from a full understanding of “how it happened,” the better to ensure it never happens again.

There is cause aplenty to be skeptical of the Emirati case against Hedges. The authorities have provided little by way of evidence of his guilt. They have shown journalists short video clips purporting to be his confession, but these do not provide much clarity – quite the contrary. (In one, Hedges is seen admitting to being a ‘captain’ in MI6, a position that doesn’t exist.) That journalists weren't allowed to record the clips, or ask any questions about them, does little to enhance confidence in the process.

Hedges was arrested on May 5, after he had been in the UAE for a couple of weeks studying the impact of the Arab spring on Emirati foreign and security policies. According to Tejada, he was held in solitary confinement for over five months, “with no charge, no lawyer and very limited consular access.” When he was produced in the courtroom, the hearing lasted less than five minutes, and he was sentenced after being forced to sign a confession written in Arabic, a language he doesn’t read. The UAE claims the case was evaluated by three judges over a month.

The British government can now demand a full account of the trial, with all the relevant documentation – which is nothing less than what the UAE would reasonably expect if one of its nationals were convicted of espionage in the U.K. How Hedges was treated during his imprisonment is also relevant to the outcome of the trial: the UAE has previously been accused by United Nations human-rights experts of forcing confessions from foreign nationals after arbitrary detention and torture.   

According to a statement by the head of the legal-affairs unit of the Emirati foreign ministry, “The UAE respects the rule of law and is committed to upholding the highest judicial standards.” If this is true, it would have no hesitation in sharing information with British authorities.

It is in the Emirati interest to do so. The Hedges affair has already aroused alarm in British universities about academic freedom in the UAE. Now he is back home, Hedges will be expected supply more details about the nightmare he has endured. Others – not only scholars, but businesspeople and tourists, too – might reasonably wonder if it is entirely safe to visit Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or other Emirati destinations.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.