UK putting UAE relations above jailed academic’s freedom, wife says

The wife of a British academic jailed for life in the United Arab Emirates on an allegation of spying has accused the UK Government of putting relations with the Gulf state before her husband.

Daniela Tejada condemned the Foreign Office over the handling of the case of 31-year-old PhD student Matthew Hedges, ahead of her meeting with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Thursday.

Mr Hunt has threatened the UAE with "serious diplomatic consequences" if Mr Hedges is not freed, saying he has seen "absolutely no evidence" to support the charge.

But Ms Tejada, having landed back at Heathrow Airport, said the UK had "failed" to take a firm stance over the Durham University student from the start of his ordeal.

"I was under the impression they were putting their interests with the UAE above a British citizen's rightful freedom and his welfare," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"They were stepping on eggshells instead of taking a firm stance."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the Foreign Office on the show for working "behind the scenes" to support Mr Hedges, with Mr Hunt appealing personally to the Crown Prince on November 12.

Ms Tejeda, who was at the Abu Dhabi court when Mr Hedges was sentenced during a five-minute hearing on Wednesday, is expected to quiz Mr Hunt over what efforts the Government will make to secure Mr Hedges' release.

She has made it clear she believes the UK should stop at nothing to free the "innocent" Briton, who was jailed after the UAE presented "completely fabricated" evidence.

Her calls for immediate action were echoed by Tory MP Johnny Mercer, who condemned the academic's jailing and called for the Government to be resilient.

He wrote on Twitter: "This is ridiculous. Our Defence assistance, mentoring and intelligence relationships alone with this country should preclude absurd things like this happening. From a friend and partner, simply unacceptable.

"Consequences must be immediate until he is released."

Mr Hunt said the UK "will do everything we can to get him home".

"We see absolutely no evidence for any of the charges laid against him. We're very concerned for his welfare," he told Sky News.

"The UAE is supposed to be a friend and ally of Britain's. We've given them repeated assurances about Matthew. If we can't resolve this there are going to be serious diplomatic consequences, because this is totally unacceptable."

Mr Hedges, a Middle Eastern studies specialist, was arrested at Dubai Airport on May 5.

A family representative said he had since been held in solitary confinement for more than five and a half months, during which his "mental and physical health seriously deteriorated".

Matthew Hedges with his wife Daniela Tejada
Matthew Hedges with his wife Daniela Tejada (Daniela Tejada/PA)

Lawyer and human rights campaigner David Haigh said he was encouraged by Mr Hunt's public stance, but warned that securing Mr Hedges' release quickly was important.

He told the BBC's World Tonight: "It's urgent. I know what he will be going through. He'll be in some form of national security jail and it's horrific there."

Mr Haigh, a former managing director of Leeds United, said he was tortured and raped while he was held in a Dubai jail over a fraud conviction that was later overturned.

He warned that Mr Hedges' ordeal and other similar cases showed the UAE "isn't a safe country to go to as a tourist".

David Haigh
David Haigh (Martin Rickett/PA)

"Nothing's changed. It's getting worse and worse and worse, and why is it getting worse? Because no-one is doing anything about it. The governments are ignoring it," Mr Haigh said.

Theresa May said she was "deeply disappointed and concerned" by Mr Hedges' jailing and told MPs the UK "will continue to press this matter at the highest level with the Emiratis".

Mr Hunt was "urgently seeking a call with foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed", the Prime Minister added.

At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Tory MP Crispin Blunt told Mrs May she should make clear to the UAE that "if he is not released, I don't see why we should be committed to their defence".

Professor Stuart Corbridge, vice-chancellor of Durham University, said he was "devastated" by the sentence.

He said: "There has been no information given on what basis Matt was handed this sentence and no reason to believe that Matt was conducting anything other than legitimate academic research."

A Foreign Office spokesman did not say what form any possible diplomatic consequences could take, but said a number of options are available.

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