ABU DHABI (Reuters) – A UAE court sentenced a British academic to life in prison on charges of spying for the British government on Wednesday, in a move Britain said would have serious diplomatic consequences for relations between the old allies.
The United Arab Emirates public prosecutor said the sentence was handed down on Matthew Hedges “after the accused confessed before the court to the charges brought against him”, but that Hedges could appeal.
The prosecutor’s statement did not specify the charges. His family and state-run UAE newspaper The National, citing a separate court statement, said Hedges was convicted of spying.
The hearing lasted less than five minutes and Hedge’s lawyer was not present, his family said.
“We are of course deeply disappointed and concerned at today’s verdict,” May told parliament. She and Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said they were raising the case at the highest levels of the UAE government.
“We have seen no evidence to back up charges against him … UAE claim to be friend & ally of the UK so there will be serious diplomatic consequences. Unacceptable,” Hunt said in a tweet.
“Today’s verdict … runs contrary to earlier assurances,” Hunt said, calling the move extremely worrying.
The statement by UAE Attorney General Hamad al-Shamsi described the trial as “fair, transparent and just”.
Hedges, a 31-year-old doctoral student at Durham University, has been held in the UAE since May 5, when he was arrested at Dubai International Airport after a two-week research visit.
The evidence presented against him consisted of notes from his dissertation research, his family said.
“I am in complete shock and I don’t know what to do. Matthew is innocent,” said Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, who was present in the Abu Dhabi courtroom and said he was shaking when he heard the verdict.
A Reuters journalist was barred from entering the hearing, which was closed to the public.
A life sentence for a non-Emirati entails a maximum of 25 years’ jail followed by deportation, according to The National.
The court ruled that his devices and research would be confiscated, the newspaper reported, adding that Hedges could appeal the ruling within 30 days. Hedges was released on bail in late October, but had been held in solitary confinement for five months before that, his family said.
He was made to sign a confession statement in Arabic that he did not understand and experienced deterioration in both his physical and mental health during his detention, they added.
The National reported that he was arrested after an Emirati man told police he had been asking for sensitive information and confessed to the charges during questioning.
According to Durham University’s website, Hedges is a doctoral student in the School of Government and International Affairs whose research interests include civil-military relations, political economy and tribalism.
More than 120 academics from around the world have issued a petition urging UAE authorities to release him.
The UAE is a tourism and trade hub, but tolerates little public criticism of its ruling families or policies.
(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Katie Paul and Maha El Dahan; Additional reporting by Hesham Hajali in Cairo; editing by John Stonestreet, William Maclean)