Matthew Hedges: British student accused of being spy in UAE 'still has panic attacks'

Matthew Hedges was arrested at Dubai airport and accused of being a spy. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

A British academic has said he still experiences nightmares and panic attacks five years after being arrested on suspicion of being a spy in the United Arab Emirates.

Matthew Hedges, who had travelled to the country to carry out research for his PhD when he was arrested at Dubai airport, has described being tortured while being detained.

"They deliberately kept lights on to try and make it more difficult for more to sleep," he said. "I didn't have a bed for a long time, I was sometimes sleeping on the floor, sometimes on a sofa.

"I had to get permission to go to the toilet, where I would be blindfolded, I would be handcuffed, my ankles tied, there was no privacy ever."

The UK's national Ombudsman has now found the Foreign Office failed to notice the Durham University student may have been tortured when its staff visited him while in detention in Abu Dhabi.

Following the report, Mr Hedges told ITV Tyne Tees he is still recovering from his ordeal.

He said: "My condition has improved. When I first arrived I wasn't able to even leave this house, I was struggling to leave my bedroom within the house, now I can go around and do things, but it doesn't mean that I'm healed.

"I have nightmares quite regularly, I have panic attacks, I have bouts of severe depression where self-harm thoughts have come. I have had some suicidal thoughts, but I've been unable to kind of process it, and try to regain some rationality, but certainly I am a different person and it affects everything in my life."

Reacting to the ombudsman report, he said: "This is is a small victory for more personally, because it confirms what I've saying the whole time, it's a very small step on that process, as a survivor of it, it's huge to get this acknowledgement."

Mr Hedges, who said he is on a "personal mission" to explain and demonstrate the failures he experienced, wants an apology from the Foreign Office.

He added: “An apology highlights that it really did occur but it also highlights that they knew it occurred and that if they had done something maybe I wouldn’t have been as harmed.”

Mr Hedges, originally from Exeter, said that during his six-month detention in 2018, he was interrogated for eight to 15 hours a day, kept in solitary confinement, and was forcibly given medication.

He suffered panic attacks and was placed under intense psychological pressure. He said that when a representative from the British Embassy was allowed to visit him, he was supervised by guards who told him what to say.

He complained to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) failed to notice he was being mistreated.

The Ombudsman’s investigation found that the UK government failed to follow its own guidance on detecting potential torture and mistreatment of British nationals.

When they visited him, embassy staff noted Mr Hedges’ voice was shaking.  He avoided eye contact and mentioned having anxiety attacks. These were all signs that he might have been subject to torture or mistreatment, the Ombudsman said.

Matthew Hedges and his wife Daniela Tejada. Credit: Handout

FCDO guidelines state that staff should act on these warning signs even when they do not have consent.  Given that Mr Hedges was supervised at all times by those he alleges were mistreating him, it must have been clear to FCDO staff that he was not in a position to give or withhold consent.

PHSO chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said: “It is hard to imagine the experience that Mr Hedges has endured and quite how terrifying his detention must have been. The nightmare was made even worse by being failed by the British Government. He trusted them to help him and they let him down. Officials failed to notice signs of torture, failed to intervene and failed to help.

“At the end of the day, the role of the government is to protect its citizens and this was a profound failure. The impact will run deep for Mr Hedges and he will have to live with that for the rest of his life.

"This must not happen again to anyone else. We have asked the FCDO to make sure it will fully use all its powers to protect British citizens abroad and ensure that they are there precisely when they are most needed.”

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: “The best interests of British nationals, including those detained overseas, is at the heart of our consular work and we support their families wherever we can.“We will review the Ombudsman’s findings and respond in due course.”

He is now working with a charity which campaigns on behalf of people detained abroad.

Mr Hedges said: "It really is a personal mission to try and really explain and demonstrate the failures that I experienced and how others are in the same position and why you need to go and change and support them.

"For me to clear my name within the UAE is practically impossible. The ombudsman report is one instance that helps vindicate and demonstrate my innocence and the abuse I suffered. This is the only thing I can do."

A spokesperson for the United Arab Emirates Government: “Matthew Hedges was convicted of espionage in 2018 following a fair and transparent trial at which he admitted the charges against him.

“Allegations by Mr Hedges of mistreatment are categorically false and lack evidentiary basis. His claims of being 'tortured' while in UAE custody are wholly untrue and without any foundation whatsoever. 

"Contrary to his ongoing claims in his well-financed campaign, Mr Hedges received entirely proper care and treatment. He had bedding, reading material, a television, access to family, consular officials and lawyers, and extensive medical care - including for a pre-existing mental health condition.

"He was never subjected to, or threatened with, either torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of any sort. The UAE has evidence to support this. 

"None of Mr Hedges’ claims have ever been accepted by any court, government, or international body.”

A Durham University spokesperson said: “We remain concerned for the suffering endured by our former student.”

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