Less than a week after a British academic was sentenced to life in prison in the United Arab Emirates, Matthew Hedges has been freed by a pardon from the UAE’s president. Hedges, 31, had been in jail since May. He was accused of spying in the Gulf nation.
Hedges spent months in solitary confinement and without access to a lawyer, according to his wife, Daniela Tejada, who has waged a campaign to secure his release by working through the U.K. government, Human Rights Watch and other groups.
“The presidential pardon for Matt is the best news we could’ve received,” Tejada said via Twitter on Monday. Thanking her supporters, she added that with Hedges’ release, “I’ve been brought back to life.”
Tejada had written a letter to Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s president, asking for clemency. The letter was relayed by Britain’s consular staff, the UAE said.
The pardon has “immediate effect,” the UAE government says, adding that Hedges can leave the country “once formalities are completed.”
Hedges was detained in May as he was about to depart from Dubai International Airport after a research trip to the UAE. A doctoral candidate at England’s Durham University, he is writing his thesis on Emirati security and foreign policy.
As NPR reported last week, “The verdict against Hedges was delivered during a hearing that his lawyer did not attend and that took just five minutes, Reuters reports, citing family members. They said Hedges had been made to sign a confession in Arabic that he did not understand and that his research notes were used as evidence against him.”
While Hedges is now clear of the charges, the UAE still maintains that he was acting as a spy:
“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.”
Tejada and Hedges’ academic colleagues have insisted the charges are false. On Monday, Durham University Vice Chancellor Stuart Corbridge said: “We are absolutely delighted to learn the news of Matt’s impending release.”
Hedges is one of 785 prisoners pardoned Monday by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is also the ruler of Abu Dhabi. The pardons coincide with the country’s 47th National Day celebrations; the government said freeing the prisoners reflects the president’s “keenness to grant them another chance for a new life and to relieve their families’ hardships.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt — who last week said the prison sentence came despite the UAE’s assurances of a fair process — called Hedges’ release “fantastic news.”
Hedges is not the only academic to be imprisoned in the UAE this year. From Human Rights Watch:
“In May, the same month as Hedges’ arrest, an Abu Dhabi court sentenced the award-winning human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor to 10 years in prison for ‘defaming’ the UAE on social media. In March, UAE courts sentenced a prominent Emirati academic, Nasser bin Ghaith, to 10 years in prison. The authorities forcibly disappeared him in August 2015 and brought charges that included peaceful criticism of the UAE and Egyptian authorities.”