Matthew Hedges, the British PhD student jailed for spying in the UAE, has been pardoned “with immediate effect” as part of its National Day clemency tradition.
At a press conference in the Gulf state, an official said he would be free to leave the country once the formalities of the presidential pardon had been seen to.
In a statement, Mr Hedges’ wife Daniela Tejada, who has lobbied for his release, said she “can’t wait” to have her husband back home.
She said: “The presidential pardon for Matt is the best news we could have received. Our six plus months of nightmare are finally over and to say we are elated is an understatement.
“That he is returning home to me and the rest of his family is much more than I was ever expecting to happen this week. I thank you all for your support.
“Without the involvement of the media, the overwhelming support of academics, the public worldwide, the work of the British diplomatic body in the UAE and Secretary Hunt’s intervention, this would have never happened.
“I ask for some time to process the news and I will be making more statements in the coming days. Thank you all once again.”
The “elated” family are now scrambling for details to find out if they will be able to go and pick Mr Hedges up.
Ms Tejada, who also tweeted a message of thanks on Monday, said the last time she saw her husband was when he was sentenced to life on Wednesday.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Sadly the last time I saw him we were both walking out of the courtroom, we weren’t able to say goodbye. It won’t be long until we can say hello.”
But at the same time of announcing his impending release, the Emirati government claimed to have a video which shows Mr Hedges admitting he was a member of MI6 and was looking into what military systems the UAE was buying.
Ms Tejada rejected the UAE’s claim that her husband was an MI6 agent, telling Today: “In my heart I know that he isn’t.”
Asked about the fact that he was being pardoned rather than the spying charges being quashed, she said: “If that is what it takes for him to be back I just welcome the news.”
A spokesman for the UAE government stood by the claims Mr Hedges was a “full-time secret service operative”.
The news comes after Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt had “constructive” talks with his United Arab Emirates counterpart over the weekend regarding the fate of the academic who was jailed for life last week.
Diplomatic efforts to free Mr Hedges are being led by Mr Hunt amid an outcry after the 31-year-old was handed the life sentence, which carries a maximum term of 25 years.
He too welcomed the news on Twitter, calling the development “fantastic news”, but said more needed to be done.
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 (@Jeremy_Hunt) November 26, 2018
The official Emirates News Agency said the customary pardon includes Mr Hedges as part almost 800 clemency orders issued to mark the UAE’s 47th National Day anniversary.
The agency quoted UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Gargash saying: “His Highness the President’s gracious clemency in the customary National Day pardons allows us to return our focus to the underlying fundamental strength of the UAE/UK bi-lateral relationship and its importance to the international community.
“It was always a UAE hope that this matter would be resolved through the common channels of our longstanding partnership. This was a straightforward matter that became unnecessarily complex despite the UAE’s best efforts.”
“The case against Mr Hedges was predicated on evidence secured from Mr Hedges’ electronic devices; surveillance and intelligence gathering by UAE intelligence and security agencies; and evidence provided by Mr Hedges himself – including a corroborated account of asset recruitment and training and the confidential information being targeted.
“His recruitment and progress within a foreign intelligence service was authenticated to the court by UAE intelligence agencies.
“The gracious Presidential customary National Day pardon allows us to close this chapter and to concentrate on the many positive aspects of the relationship.”
Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai, an international civil and criminal justice organisation, said: “While we are grateful for Matthew Hedges freedom, he should not have had to endure this in the first place and a country who is recognised by our British courts as torturing British citizens, should not be allowed to market and promote in the United Kingdom.
The Durham University researcher’s wife, Ms Tejada, initially claimed the British government was putting foreign relations above his liberty, but after meeting Mr Hunt on Thursday, was assured he was “now standing up for” her husband.
In a statement at the UAE embassy in London on Friday, ambassador Sulaiman Almazroui praised the closeness between the two nations as he said clemency is being considered for the “extremely serious case”.
“Mr Hedges’ family have made a request for clemency and the government is studying that request,” he said. “Because of the strength of that relationship we are hopeful that an amicable solution can be reached.”
He also made efforts to defend the judicial process, denying it was a “five-minute show trial” and claiming three judges evaluated “compelling evidence” over three hearings to make their ruling.
He did not address whether the academic was given adequate legal representation throughout the process, which Ms Tejada has said he lacked.
She swiftly rebuked the ambassador’s defence, saying her husband had been held in solitary confinement for more than five months without charge or lawyer, and when he did receive consular access he was not able to “talk openly”.
Mr Hedges, originally from Exeter, 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”.
UAE ‘studies request for clemency’ in hope for ‘amicable solution’
On Friday, the UAE’s London ambassador defended the trial of British academic Matthew Hedges but said his government was studying a request for clemency made by his family.
The Gulf state claimed to have ”compelling and powerful” evidence against the British academic who was jailed for life for spying.
An Emirati law chief said the case had been “thoroughly investigated” and warned the government “does not attempt to interfere in court cases”.
But the UAE ambassador in London Sulaiman Almazroui made a short statement on the case on Friday morning, during which he said relations between him and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt were “good”, and he was studying a request clemency.
He said: “Matthew Hedges was not convicted after a five-minute show trial, as some have reported. Over the course of one month, three judges evaluated compelling evidence in three hearings.
“They reached their conclusions after a full and proper process. This was an extremely serious case. We live in a dangerous neighbourhood and national security must be a top priority.
“Mr Hedges’ family have made a request for clemency and the government is studying that request. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt had a good conversation yesterday with our foreign minister.”
He stressed the two nations’ close ties, adding: “Because of the strength of that relationship we are hopeful that an amicable solution can be reached.”
Foreign Office ignored weekly cries for hope, wife says
The wife of jailed academic Matthew Hedges said the Foreign Office ignored her weekly cries for help and has accused the Government of bowing to the UAE.
Speaking on Thursday morning, Daniela Tejada said she still did not know where her husband was being held after he was jailed for life for spying on Wednesday following a five-minute hearing in front of an Emirati judge.
After her first meeting with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, she said: “I really appreciate the Foreign Secretary taking the time to meet me at this crucial point in Matt’s life,” she said, reading from a prepared statement after an hour inside the building.
“He has assured me that he and his team are doing everything in their power to get Matt free and return him home to me.
“This is not a fight I can win alone and I thank the Foreign Office and the British public for now standing up for one of their citizens.”
Talking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, she said: “I had been trying to persuade them to do more on a weekly basis.
“I asked for the Foreign Secretary’s representation, firmer stances, and a more proactive approach.
“I was under the impression they were putting their interests with the UAE above a British citizen’s rightful freedom and his welfare. They were stepping on eggshells instead of taking a firm stance.”
She said the Foreign Office should have acted more strongly from the start, not after Mr Hedges, 31, a Durham University PhD student, had spent up to six months in solitary confinement.
“I believe that they should have taken a firmer stance from the beginning, if not publicly then through their private representations. This is something I feel they failed to do throughout really,” she said.
“They just disregarded my requests, they said it wasn’t part of their job, it wasn’t part of their duty.
“On one occasion one of the case workers said the Foreign Office did not have a duty of care so weren’t obliged to make such representations.”
Ms Tejada was given access to the courtroom on Wednesday, but Mr Hedges did not have a lawyer present and it was reported journalists had been banned from entering. When the judgment was handed down, meaning he could have to serve 25 years in prison, he started shaking.
She said: “He was very, very scared when he was standing in front of the judge because we knew of the possibility of an arbitrary judgment.
“I asked him to look at me if he was feeling too nervous, which he tried to do a couple of times.
“He started shaking when the translator told him the statement. He has to ask for him to to double check.
“I can imagine he’s just as distraught as I am.”
After arriving at Heathrow on Thursday morning, she told Today that they were separated by 10-20 metres during the sentencing hearing and that she does not know where he is being held.
She is working with her husband’s court-appointed lawyer, who she was only met once, to build a case for an appeal.
Ms Tejada said “all evidence against him is fabricated”.
Hunt: UK will do all it can to get academic home
The Federal Appeals Court of Abu Dhabi said Mr Hedges was found guilty of “spying on the UAE and providing sensitive security and intelligence information to third parties”.
Local papers say police secured evidence of his activities from Mr Hedges’ electronic devices and surveillance by Emirati intelligence. Durham University, meanwhile, said that there was no reason to believe Mr Hedges ”was conducting anything other than legitimate academic research”.
Ms Tejada’s call for immediate action was 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.”
A family representative said he had been held in solitary confinement for over five-and-a-half months, during which his “mental and physical health seriously deteriorated”.
Lawyer and human rights campaigner David Haigh said he was encouraged by Mr Hunt’s public stance, but warned 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, says 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”.
“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.”
Cabinet minister warns of ‘serious diplomatic repercussions’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the Foreign Office had been working “behind the scenes” to support Mr Hedges following his detention in the UAE.
“We have seen no evidence to back up these charges. There are clearly going to have to be serious diplomatic repercussions,” he told the Today programme.
“The Foreign Secretary has already raised this case personally with the Crown Prince on November 12 – so before the hearing.
Cabinet Minister @MattHancock reacts to Daniela Tejada, wife of jailed academic Matthew Hedges, who told #r4Today the UK government is “putting their interests with the UAE above a British citizen’s rightful freedom and welfare” pic.twitter.com/1P18MJHBP3
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) November 22, 2018
“So the Foreign Office has been acting on his behalf at the the highest possible levels.
“Of course we should support our citizens overseas when they are in these circumstances.
“The Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary have been working behind the scenes in order to try to support Matthew Hedges in this case ahead of it going public.”
Nothing clandestine about research, university professor says
The university supervisor of British academic Matthew Hedges has said there had been nothing clandestine about his research in the country.
Professor Clive Jones of Durham University said Mr Hedges had been working on a thesis about civil-military relations in the UAE since the Arab Spring based on readily accepted literature.
“There was nothing clandestine or covert in any of the material he had been using up to date in the thesis,” Prof Jones told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“He went to the United Arab Emirates to conduct a series of interviews to help flesh out some of the theories and some of the empirical evidence that he had actually collected.”
He added: “If we had any inkling that Matt in any sense shape or form was going to be in danger, then of course we would not have agreed to let him go.
“Matt was no stranger to the United Arab Emirates. He had lived there on and off since the age of nine.
“He knew many of the people he was going out to interview so again it is utterly bizarre and indeed perverse and indeed a miscarriage of justice that this has befallen him.”
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