By Ahmed Jadallah
DUBAI (Reuters) – A British academic was on his way home from the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday after a pardon saved him from a life sentence for spying, according to a Reuters photographer.
The UAE said it had pardoned Matthew Hedges 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 boarded a flight to London in Dubai, according to a Reuters photographer at the airport.
Hedges, a 31-year-old doctoral student at Durham University, had been held since May 5, when he was arrested at Dubai International Airport after a two-week research visit.
His family have cast him as a dedicated researcher who fell foul of the UAE’s security and justice system. The UAE cast him as 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.
His wife, Daniela Tejada, has 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 focussed 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; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, Editing by Alistair Smout)