LONDON (Reuters) – British academic Matthew Hedges arrived back in the UK on Tuesday and thanked his “brave and strong” wife for helping secure his release, nearly seven months after he was detained in the United Arab Emirates on espionage charges.
Hedges arrived at London’s Heathrow airport early in the morning on a flight from Dubai, a day after the UAE pardoned him from a life sentence in the spying case.
“I don’t know where to begin with thanking people for securing my release … Thank you so much to the British Embassy and the FCO (Britain’s foreign ministry) for their efforts in ensuring I arrived safely back home,” Hedges said in a statement.
“I could not have done this without Daniela,” he added, referring to his wife, Daniela Tejada, who lobbied the governments of the UK and UAE for his release. “She is so brave and strong, seeing her and my family after this ordeal is the best thing that could have happened. I thank you all once again, this is very surreal.”
Hedges was escorted to the departure gate at Dubai International Airport by three people earlier on Tuesday. He stood in the tunnel leading to the aircraft for several minutes before being greeted by what appeared to be two UAE security officials and then boarded the flight.
The UAE pardoned Matthew Hedges on Monday after showing a video of him purportedly confessing to being a member of Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency. Britain has denied he was a spy and welcomed his pardon.
Hedges, a 31-year-old doctoral student at Durham University, had been held in the UAE since May 5, when he was arrested at Dubai airport after a two-week research visit.
His family have described him as a dedicated researcher who fell foul of the UAE’s security and justice system. The UAE said he was a British spy who was given a fair trial for grave espionage offences.
The case has strained ties between the long-time allies, leading London to issue a forceful diplomatic response after last week’s verdict was handed down, with a warning that it could hurt relations.
The UAE president issued the pardon as part of a mass clemency of more than 700 prisoners to mark the country’s National Day.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt welcomed the pardon, which he called “fantastic news”.
“Although we didn’t agree with charges we are grateful to UAE government for resolving issue speedily,” Hunt said.
The UAE had signalled on Friday that it was working on an “amicable solution” to the case after Prime Minister Theresa May had described last week’s sentence as deeply disappointing.
Hedges’ wife said he was kept in solitary confinement for more than five months and the evidence presented against him consisted of notes from his dissertation research.
Last week’s hearing lasted less than five minutes, she said.
The UAE’s ambassador to the UK has disputed the account, saying the case was “extremely serious” and there had not been a “five minute show trial”.
Minutes before the pardon was announced on Monday, a UAE government spokesman showed journalists a video of Hedges purporting to confess to belonging to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and researching which military systems the UAE was buying.
In the video, which was sometimes inaudible and shown with subtitles that could not be independently verified, Hedges appeared to say he approached sources as a doctoral student.
The spokesman, Jaber al-Lamki, said Hedges was “100 percent a secret service operative” and aimed “to steal the UAE’s sensitive national secrets for his paymasters”, but did not take questions on the case.
He said Hedges aimed to gather information on government figures including “members of the UAE’s ruling families and their networks” and economic data related to strategic firms.
Hedges had built an extensive network of contacts while working with Dubai’s Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), then returned to the UAE “on assignment as an undercover student on research trip”, Lamki said.
His family dispute the UAE account. They said he was an academic whose dissertation research focused on sensitive topics in the UAE such as security structures, tribalism and the consolidation of political power in Abu Dhabi.
Like most Gulf states, the UAE brooks little public criticism of ruling family members, senior officials or policy and has prosecuted pro-democracy activists for what it calls insulting the country’s leaders.
(Additional reporting by Katie Paul and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Alistair Smout, Nick Macfie and Andrew Heavens)