British PhD student Matthew Hedges has now safely returned to the United Kingdom after being sentenced to life in prison in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and then pardoned on November 26th. Hedges had been accused of spying in the U.A.E. for the British Government: he admitted, under significant pressure, to working as a ‘captain’ for intelligence service MI6, a role which does not actually exist. Since his return, Hedges has described to British media the psychological torture that he was subjected to by Emirati authorities. He pledged to seek ‘repercussions’ in the new year in an effort to ensure this does not happen to other academics in the future.
Hedges, 31, had been researching the impact of the Arab Spring on the country’s foreign policy for his PhD at Durham University, when he was arrested in Dubai airport on May 5th. He was supposedly reported to the authorities by one of his interviewees. Previously, he had carried out paid work for the U.A.E. when he contributed to their national security strategy, ‘yet a few years later,’ Hedges claims, ‘I was arrested for doing something very similar.’ Placed in solitary confinement, he was made to stand ‘all day’ in ankle cuffs and was given a ‘cocktail’ of medication to treat his anxiety and depression that he had been in the process of seeking counselling for prior to his arrest. He was deprived of natural light and regularly experienced panic attacks. Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, fought tirelessly to get justice for her husband, putting pressure on British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to seek a presidential pardon on his behalf from the U.A.E. Government.
The international response to Hedges’ situation was therefore limited: Jeremy Hunt only became involved after Tejada’s persistent efforts to draw attention to the plight of her husband, at which point the British put pressure on the U.A.E. to pardon him and his life sentence was overturned – and that was it. Perhaps Britain’s reluctance to seek further repercussions stems from the wider context of current efforts to strengthen its relationship with the U.A.E. in preparation for Brexit, as it represents Britain’s largest export hub in the Middle East. Furthermore, although Hedges’ case is unprecedented – both because he is a British citizen and because of the severity of the initial sentence given to him – Emirati academics in the U.A.E. find themselves not infrequently in a similar position. Their plight is often overlooked and as a result governments in powerful countries across the world are largely ignoring the root causes of the precarious position of academics living or researching in the U.A.E., by only responding on a case-by-case basis.
The ultimate response by the British Government to Hedges’ case – putting pressure on the U.A.E. to achieve a complete presidential pardon, allowing Hedges to return to his life in the UK – was successful. However, this was largely thanks to Tejada’s efforts to support her husband. This means that any future academics that may find themselves in a similar position will be reliant on a ‘Daniela figure’ to push for the British Government to intervene and secure their release. But what about the individuals without that kind of support from a partner or other relative? And what of those, including the Emirati academics, who come from a country where their governments and media ignore their cases? The international community needs to be doing more to condemn the U.A.E. for its treatment of Hedges and other academics that find themselves unjustifiably detained and very often tortured.
An unintended consequence of this limited response to Hedges’ case is that academic links with the U.A.E. may have been partially severed. Whilst Hedges has returned home, the lack of remorse shown by the U.A.E. suggests that there is nothing to stop this happening again. Ms Tejada warns that academics should now think twice before researching in the region, stating that ‘the red lines aren’t clearly drawn…so it’s sort of every man on their own…each academic will have a different experience.’ Several British universities, including Middlesex, Bolton and Birmingham, have opened campuses in Dubai in recent years. David Wearing, Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, has warned that these branches will have to close, ‘since legitimate academic activity is clearly impossible in the UAE.’ The U.K. may have limited its condemnation of the U.A.E. in order to maintain a strong relationship, but quite the opposite has happened, at least in the academic community.
Academics across the world should be able to carry out research safely. They should have access to clear guidelines from their country of interest as to what academic research is permitted and they should be confident that, if they follow these guidelines, they will not be arrested for gathering open-source information. And, to state the obvious, the U.A.E. should not be handing out life sentences when they clearly do not have any evidence. They should also face international condemnation for the use of torture, physical or psychological, against prisoners. Following the court’s decision to hand Hedges a life sentence, Jeremy Hunt said that ‘the handling of this case by the U.A.E. authorities will have repercussions for the relationship between our two countries, which has to be built on trust.’ Despite the fact that Hedges was issued a presidential pardon, the U.A.E. should still be facing these ‘repercussions’ for their unacceptable treatment of him and other wrongly accused academics.
A proposed solution to this is the launching of an extensive research study into Hedges’ case and others, followed by a series of formal meetings between U.A.E. authorities and academics from the international community who are involved in research in the Middle East. Two key findings should emerge from this research. Firstly, researchers should uncover and document cases in the U.A.E. where evidence has not been necessary for sentencing, and where torture has been used on prisoners in some form. This should be highlighted and condemned widely in an attempt to force the U.A.E. to reform the ways in which it deals with perceived illegal activity. Secondly, clear guidelines need to be identified for academic researchers to follow in the future, allowing them to carry out their work safely and without fear of persecution. These findings must be formalised into a concise document which can be issued to academics travelling to the region, and U.A.E. authorities must be completely willing to allow research that falls within these guidelines. If any academics are believed to have breached these clear and explicit guidelines, real evidence to prove this must be presented before a court. Neither physical nor psychological torture against prisoners is acceptable, and confessions made as a result of torture or significant pressure should under no circumstances be accepted as legitimate evidence.
Openness and clarity are crucial to this proposed solution. The U.A.E. must be clear to academics what is and isn’t acceptable; academics can therefore feel safe during their research as long as they are prepared to be open about their work, showing that it is in line with the proposed document; U.A.E. authorities should comply with legislation regarding the fair treatment of prisoners and must understand that, in order to facilitate leading research in the region, they must conform to these guidelines. Hedges’ PhD on the effects of the Arab Spring on the U.A.E.’s foreign policy would be a useful and important piece of research for the government and yet precisely this type of research will not be able to continue unless this comprehensive solution is followed.
Ms. Tejada condemned the U.A.E. after her husband was handed his life sentence: ‘the U.A.E. authorities should feel ashamed for such an obvious injustice.’ Hedges is now home but Tejada’s statement continues to ring true. The British Government and Tejada should be praised for working tirelessly to secure Hedges’ release. However, this, in itself, is insufficient as a long-term solution. The U.A.E. authorities should be held accountable for their wrongful treatment of Hedges and other academics. A clear set of guidelines must be issued to ensure this does not happen again in the future and the OWP wish Hedges the best of luck as he plans to seek repercussions in the new year.