UAE says evidence against jailed academic Matthew Hedges was ‘compelling’
The government of the UAE stressed “compelling and powerful” evidence was shown in support of prosecuting British academic Matthew Hedges for spying amid an outcry in the UK over his sentencing to life imprisonment.
A law chief in the Gulf federation said the case had been “thoroughly investigated” and warned the government “does not attempt to interfere in court cases”.
Jeremy Hunt is leading efforts to apply diplomatic pressure on the country to release the 31-year-old PhD student, who could face a life behind bars after being convicted of espionage.
On Thursday the Foreign Secretary said he had a “constructive conversation” with his opposite number, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed, tweeting: “I believe & trust he’s working hard to resolve the situation asap.”
According to the BBC the UAE’s ambassador in London, Sulaiman Almazroui, will issue a statement on Friday morning that could give an update on the case.
After returning to the UK on Thursday, Mr Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, met with Mr Hunt and later said she had been assured that UK officials are doing “everything in their power” to bring her husband home.
However a frank statement by Abdulla Al Naqbi, head of the Department of Legal Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, set out the UAE’s position.
“The UAE respects the rule of law and is committed to upholding the highest judicial standards. Like all countries with an independent judiciary it is vital that the government does not attempt to interfere in court cases,” the statement said.
“We cannot give assurances to other countries about the outcome of trials.”
Mr Hedges’ shock sentencing during a five-minute hearing at an Abu Dhabi court on Wednesday prompted a furious response by UK officials.
Mr Hunt said he had seen “absolutely no evidence” to support prosecutors’ allegations that Mr Hedges was spying when he visited Dubai earlier this year.
He also threatened “serious diplomatic consequences” if the student, who is originally from Exeter, is not freed.
However Mr Al Naqbi defended the court’s decision, stressing the crimes Mr Hedges is accused of are “extremely serious” and protecting the UAE’s national interests “must be our first priority”.
“The case against Hedges was thoroughly investigated by the public prosecutor,” the statement said.
“Compelling and powerful evidence was presented in court. That included information extracted from his personal electronic devices by expert forensic analysis techniques; evidence provided by UAE intelligence agencies; witness testaments and Hedges’ own confession.”
The statement rejected claims that Mr Hedges was forced to sign a document in Arabic that has been used as the “confession” and said he was provided with translators.
The minister also rejected claims that Mr Hedges had been mistreated while held in custody.
“Contrary to media reports, Matthew Hedges has been treated fairly and according to the constitution of the UAE. We are proud to have a system of justice that gives everyone the right to a fair trial,” it said.
A family representative said Mr Hedges was held in solitary confinement for more than five-and-a-half months, during which his “mental and physical health seriously deteriorated”.
The UAE statement rebutted claims that the student had been denied visits by his family or British embassy staff and said he had access to medical and psychological care “throughout”.
Mr Hedges, a Middle Eastern studies specialist, was arrested at Dubai Airport as he tried to leave the country on May 5.
Professor Stuart Corbridge, vice-chancellor of Durham University, said there is “no reason to believe that Matt was conducting anything other than legitimate academic research”.
After a hearing in October UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said attempts had been made to address the case though “common channels”, although “reluctance” of UK authorities meant it was passed to the courts.
He tweeted: “Case of Mathew Hedges extensively discussed with UK colleagues over last 5 months. Unusual & embarrassing revelations about friends & allies.
“With reluctance of UK authorities to address matter thru common channels,due legal process needs to take its course.”
Mr Hedges was given 30 days to challenge the court ruling, and Ms Tejada on Thursday started a petition on Change.org which has gathered more than 150,000 signatures.
She wrote: “Matthew may be able appeal his sentence in one month’s time. Before then I am begging as many people as possible to back my petition calling on the British Government to do everything in their power to ensure the UAE let my husband come home.”
Mr Al Naqbi said officials had discussed the matter regularly over recent months.
“Both sides hope to find an amicable solution to the Matthew Hedges case,” he said.