Matthew Hedges, the 31-year-old British academic jailed for life on spying charges by the United Arab Emirates, has been released hours after a presidential pardon by the country’s rulers, according to local officials. .
The move follows intense lobbying by the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, amid an international outcry that left the UAE scrambling to produce evidence to justify claims that Hedges was a spy.
At a press conference on Monday, the UAE continued to insist Hedges was an MI6 agent, and played video footage showing him apparently confessing that he had been trying to discover military secrets, including about the UAE’s weapons purchases.
The UAE said a “gracious clemency was granted on Sunday in response to a letter from the Hedges family bearing in mind the historical relationship between the UAE and the UK”.
A spokesman for the UAE’s national media council said hours after Hedges’ pardon was confirmed that he had been freed.
Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, welcomed the pardon. “The presidential pardon for Matt is the best news we could have received. Our six-plus months of nightmare are finally over and to say we are elated is an understatement. That he is returning home to me and the rest of his family is much more than I was ever expecting to happen this week.
“Without the involvement of the media, the overwhelming support of academics, the public worldwide, the work of the British diplomatic body in the UAE and Secretary Hunt’s intervention, this would have never happened.”
Hunt said news of Hedges’ pardon was “bittersweet” given that fellow Briton Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains detained in Iran, also accused of spying.
He tweeted: “Fantastic news about Matthew Hedges. Although we didn’t agree with charges we are grateful to UAE govt for resolving issue speedily. But also a bittersweet moment as we remember Nazanin & other innocent ppl detained in Iran. Justice won’t be truly done until they too are safely home.”
Prof Stuart Corbridge, the vice-chancellor of Durham University, said: “We are absolutely delighted to learn the news of Matt’s impending release. It is paramount that he is now allowed to return home to Daniela and his family as quickly and safely as possible.”
The clemency was granted on Sunday by the UAE president, Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, and was one of more than 800 pardons granted by the Gulf state.
The short video clips shown by the UAE did not provide context but showed Hedges discussing how MI6 operates in the UAE, and apparently confessing to holding the rank of captain in MI6, a position that does not exist. The clips are not being shared by the UAE for wider broadcast.
They also purported to show Hedges confessing to researching the military systems the UAE was purchasing.
The bulk of the press conference was designed to defend the UAE’s judicial system and to justify claims that Hedges was indeed a spy, giving the UAE an opportunity to defend its international reputation.
UAE leaders have been angered at the attacks on its reputation, led by Tejada and backed by Hunt, who said he was shocked that Hedges had been jailed at a five-minute hearing last week. The UAE claims the brief hearing was just a formal announcement of the sentence, and not part of the trial itself.
The press conference began with a spokesman detailing the charges against Hedges, the seriousness of the case, and the belief that the UAE was right to have charged him.
He claimed Hedges “had sought information on the ruling families and their networks” and was seeking “to gather classified information on the UAE military and political role in Yemen”.
He said these would be considered serious threats to the national security of any country, and that the information collected went far beyond standard academic practice.
“In fact, Mr Hedges took advantage of the openness granted academic researchers in this country. We are a country that hosts branches of some of the world’s finest academic institutes and we pride ourselves in our contribution to scientific advancement and academic pursuits.”
He said the investigation found Hedges had used two different identities to gather information from his “targets”: a PhD researcher, and a businessman.
“He was a part-time PhD researcher, a part-time businessman, but he was a 100% full-time secret service operative.
“Hedges has been found guilty of espionage. He sought out sensitive information. He knew he had access to it. He was here to steal sensitive national security secrets for his paymasters.”
With the UAE being a close trading partner of the UK and its leading political ally in the Gulf, the case had the potential to cause a major rift between the two countries.
The UAE’s foreign affairs minister, Anwar Gargash, said: “It was always a UAE hope that this matter would be resolved through the common channels of our longstanding partnership. This was a straightforward matter that became unnecessarily complex despite the UAE’s best efforts.”
He said the case against Hedges was based on evidence secured from his electronic devices, surveillance and intelligence gathering by UAE agencies, and evidence provided by 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.”
Hedges’ release was announced ahead of UAE national day, when traditionally prisoners are granted pardons.
Reacting to the news of Hedges’ release, academics and their representatives said universities must review how they operated in Gulf countries.
The University and College Union’s head of policy and campaigns, Matt Waddup, said: “UK universities with overseas operations should launch reviews covering human rights, trade union representation, academic freedom and ensuring that local workers employed by the institution are not exploited. It is vital that the profits from overseas operations are not achieved on the back of the dilution of staff and student rights and personal safety.”
David Wearing, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway University, said: “It remains clear that legitimate intellectual activity is impossible in the UAE, and it isn’t ethically tenable for UK universities to blithely accept that. They should demand guarantees of equivalent academic freedom to that enjoyed in the UK, or they should pull out.
“What I expect to happen, however, is that corporate managers will breathe a sigh of relief that this PR problem has gone away, and return to business as usual.”
Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, said: “The issue is not really that Matthew got a life sentence, but that it got to the point where he had already spent months in terrible conditions before public pressure helped to release him.
“There’s no guarantee at all that other academics will not be afforded the same treatment. So what safeguards can universities actually have that academic freedom will be upheld, especially given the context of the UAE as a close British ally?”