Briton Matthew Hedges Sentenced to Life in Prison in U.A.E. for Spying

(Bloomberg) -- A British academic has been sentenced to life in prison in the United Arab Emirates on charges of spying for the U.K., according to his family, a verdict swiftly denounced by the government in London which raised the possibility of “diplomatic consequences.”

University of Durham doctoral student Matthew Hedges had been charged with espionage and jeopardizing the state’s military, security and economy, according to earlier statements by U.A.E. authorities. Hedges was arrested at Dubai’s airport on May 5 after spending two weeks in the U.A.E. studying the impact of the Arab Spring uprisings on the country’s foreign policy and security strategy, his wife Daniela Tejada has said.

The office of the U.A.E.’s attorney general said Hedges could appeal to the supreme court for a retrial, according to the state-run WAM news agency, without specifying the crimes it said he had confessed to. The prosecutor said U.K. embassy officials were present during the trial.

Hedges’s family, however, described what they said were flawed proceedings. The academic was sentenced without the presence of his lawyer in a hearing that lasted five minutes, it said, after being forced to sign a confession document in Arabic, a language he doesn’t read. He was previously held in solitary confinement for five months.

The court ruling in Abu Dhabi drew forceful condemnation from the U.K., with Prime Minister Theresa May expressing her deep concern and disappointment and vowing to take the case to the highest levels.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the ruling “runs contrary to earlier assurances.” Hunt visited Abu Dhabi on Nov. 12 after the charges against Hedges were revealed.

The verdict "is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom,” he said in an emailed statement on Wednesday. In a later tweet, Hunt said: “UAE claim to be friend & ally of the UK so there will be serious diplomatic consequences. Unacceptable.”

Hedges’s wife, who was present in court, called on the U.K. government to take a stand in support of her husband.

“They say that the U.A.E. 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,” she said in the statement. Hunt said he would meet Tejada on Thursday.

The disclosures mark a rare case of going public with an espionage case between the U.K. and the U.A.E., which maintain cordial ties. The seven-state U.A.E. federation, which includes Abu Dhabi and Dubai, has taken a hard line on political Islam and domestic activism since 2011, when revolutions swept through the Middle East and North Africa and threatened the established order across the Arab world.

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