Matthew Hedges: British academic accused of being a spy in UAE welcomes Foreign Office apology

Matthew Hedges and partner Daniela Tejada. Credit: Handout

An academic who was arrested on suspicion of being a spy in the United Arab Emirates has said he has received an apology from the British government after the Foreign Office failed to notice he had been tortured.

Matthew Hedges, who had travelled to the country to carry out research for his PhD when he was arrested at Dubai airport, has previously described being tortured during his six-month detention in 2018.

The Durham University student, who is originally from Exeter, said he was interrogated for eight to 15 hours a day, kept in solitary confinement, and was forcibly given medication.

In August, the UK's national Ombudsman found the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) failed to notice the Durham University student may have been tortured when its staff visited him while in detention in Abu Dhabi.

The Ombudsman said embassy staff who visited Mr Hedges while he was in detention noticed his voice was shaking, he avoided eye contact and mentioned having anxiety attacks.

It added these were signs he might have been subject to torture or mistreatment, and that Foreign Office guidelines say that staff should have acted in response even when they do not have consent.

Mr Hedges had asked for a formal apology from the Foreign Office, which he said he has now received.

Mr Hedges, who was also given £1,500 compensation, as recommended by the Ombudsman, welcomed the apology, but said it was “baffling” that the UK continues to work alongside the UAE “knowing how callous they are with British lives”.

In a post on X, the platform previously known as Twitter, Mr Hedges said he was “delighted” to receive the apology, which he described as a “watershed moment”.

He added: “I will continue to fight for those who are not lucky enough to have been freed or who have ridiculous false charges made against them and today I revel in the fact that the FCDO have agreed they must do more to protect and help British citizens.”

In August, Mr Hedges told ITV Tyne Tees he still has panic attacks following 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."

Matthew Hedges spoke to ITV Tyne Tees last month about his ordeal following the publication of the ombudsman's report. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

The FCDO have since confirmed that they have apologised to Mr Hedges and will pay compensation.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “We recognise that Mr Hedges and his family’s experience was a distressing one that has had a profound impact.

“We have accepted the ombudsman’s finding for Mr Hedges, apologised and will pay the suggested compensation.

“The ombudsman rejected elements of the complaint and its report concluded we did act correctly in seeking access to Mr Hedges. We always aim to act in the best interest of the individual and acting without their consent in raising concerns about torture and mistreatment creates unacceptable risks.

“Helping British nationals abroad is a top priority and we offer advice and support at any time of day or night, helping over 20,000 British people and their families every year.”

In the recommended letter of apology, Sir Philip Barton said he recognised “the profound impact of your detention in UAE on you and the injustice you have faced”.

He added: “On behalf of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office [FCDO], I acknowledge, and apologise for, the failing identified by the ombudsman, specifically I recognise that we did not fully follow our guidance on torture and mistreatment and that this failure has left you uncertain as to whether more could have been done on your behalf.”

Sir Philip said he recognised that “this has been an emotional and distressing experience that may have a long-lasting impact on your life”.

The United Arab Emirates Government has previously denied mistreatment of Mr Hedges. In a statement last month, a spokesperson said: “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.”

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