UAE defends British academic’s life sentence, saying court was shown ‘compelling evidence’

The UAE defended on Thursday the decision by an Abu Dhabi court to sentence a British academic to life in prison for espionage, claiming it had been presented with “compelling and powerful evidence.”

The country’s foreign ministry said the court relied on witness statements and information found on Matthew Hedges’s laptop and phone, which is yet to be made public.

A representative for Mr Hedges’s said the Durham University PhD student was present in Abu Dhabi’s Federal Appeals court on Wednesday without a lawyer in a hearing that lasted only five minutes.

The foreign ministry denied this in a statement released on Thursday, saying the trial had been spread out over two days in October and in previous appearances Mr Hedges’s had used a court-appointed lawyer.

Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan shake hands with British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt in Abu DhabiCredit:

The court alleges in the statement that Mr Hedges confessed, however his wife Daniela Tejada maintains that he was made to sign a document in Arabic that he did not understand during one of his interrogations in prison.

"The crimes Mr Hedges’ was accused of are extremely serious,” the statement said. “For the UAE, like all countries, protecting our national security must be our first priority.

“Both sides hope to find an amicable solution to the Matthew Hedges case," adding that it was determined to protect its important and strategic relationship with key ally Britain.

The court has given 31-year-old Mr Hedges, originally from Exeter, 30 days to appeal the sentence.

Daniela Tejada, the wife of British academic Mathew Hedges imprisoned in the UAE arrives at Heathrow Airport after his sentencingCredit:
David Dyson

The slight softening of tone has led diplomats working on the case to hope the UAE could show leniency at appeal.

Hamad Al Shamsi, UAE Attorney General, had said the day before that the sentence should not be viewed as a “final” judgment.

Mr Hedges was arrested at Dubai airport in May after a local official he interviewed for his thesis on the UAE’s security policies told police he had been asking for sensitive information.

One Emirati legal expert said if Mr Hedges had contact with MI6, or any other foreign intelligence service it would constitute a "per se violation of UAE law" and the court would have "very little discretion in terms of sentencing."

Analysts say that the UAE’s definition of espionage is much broader than in other countries in the region.

"Their intelligence services have wide reach and their sense of spying would be a very broad interpretation. Ask the wrong things in the wrong way and it can potentially go very wrong quickly,” said James Sorene, chief executive of Bicom research centre, told the Telegraph.

“Where they are short in manpower they bring in foreign expertise – lots of UK and US former military and security people there either working in private companies or even in official positions,” he said.

“Put that all together and you have a security system that is very closed doing a lot of work across the region. So they crack down very hard on people trying to access it for the wrong reasons."

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