U.A.E. releases British academic sentenced to life for spying
U.K. foreign minister welcomes announcement, says his government 'deeply perplexed' by spying charge
The United Arab Emirates on Monday pardoned and released a British academic sentenced to life in prison for spying in the Gulf Arab country, showing videos of him purportedly acknowledging that he worked for MI6, a British intelligence agency.
The announcement on Matthew Hedges's release ends a diplomatic headache for the U.A.E., a staunch American and British ally in the Middle East.
However, Emirati officials made a point to insist their arrest came on solid ground, showing a closed-door meeting of journalists hastily convened in Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E. capital, short video clips of Hedges allegedly acknowledging his intelligence work.
"He was a part-time PhD researcher, a part-time businessman, but he was a 100 per cent a full-time secret service operative," said Jaber al-Lamki, an official with the U.A.E.'s National Media Council.
"Mr. Hedges has been found guilty of espionage. He sought out sensitive information he knew had access to it. He was here to steal the U.A.E.'s sensitive national security secrets for his paymasters," al-Lamki added.
Daniela Tejada, Hedges' wife, told BBC that she does not believe her husband is a spy.
"I can't wait to have him back" and added: "In my heart, I know that he isn't a spy."
Asked about her husband being pardoned, rather than having the spying conviction quashed, Tejada said "if that is what it takes for him to be back, I just welcome the news."
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt welcomed the decision on Hedges, tweeting it was "fantastic news."
Fantastic news about Matthew Hedges.Although we didn’t agree with charges we are grateful to UAE govt for resolving issue speedily.But also a bittersweet moment as we remember Nazanin &other innocent ppl detained in Iran.Justice won’t be truly done until they too are safely home.—@Jeremy_Hunt
Hunt had lobbied senior U.A.E. official for Hedges' release.
"We've seen no evidence to support these accusations," Hunt said. He said the U.K. is "deeply perplexed" by the charge levelled against Hedges.
The U.A.E. came under increasing international pressure after the academic's life sentence was handed down last week.
According to the Emirati announcement, U.A.E. President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan issued the clemency for Hedges on Sunday, along with over 780 others to mark the country's forthcoming National Day. Al-Lamki said at 3 p.m. local time that Hedges had been released, without elaborating.
Al-Lamki declined to take any questions from journalists. However, Emirati officials insisted Hedges' arrest was warranted, showing short clips of him being questioned and being in court.
'Then it becomes MI6'
In the video, Hedges, a 31-year-old doctorate student in Middle Eastern studies at Durham University, is seen describing himself as a captain in MI6 during what appears to be a court hearing somewhere in the Gulf Arab country.
Another clip appears to show Hedges speaking to someone in an office and saying: "It helps the research to go in in an easy way."
Then, Hedges is seen snapping his fingers and adds: "Then it becomes MI6."
Emirati officials did not allow journalists to record the videos. In the office video, Hedges appears in a blue polo shirt and jeans. He did not appear to be injured or under duress, though the audio during the court appearance sounded garbled. Emirati officials also did not offer any context for the video clips.
In his statement, al-Lamki said Hedges had routine access to doctors and lawyers, while British Embassy officials attended his court hearing.