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UAE pardons, releases British academic sentenced to life for spying

Reuters file photo of British academic Matthew Hunt

The United Arab Emirates on Monday pardoned and freed British researcher Matthew Hedges, who was sentenced last week to life in prison for spying, an official statement said.

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Hedges was among more than 700 prisoners pardoned by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on the occasion of National Day.

"Mr. Hedges will be permitted to leave the UAE once formalities are completed," an official statement said.

The 31-year-old doctoral candidate was sentenced to life last week after an Abu Dhabi court found him guilty of "spying for or on behalf of" the UK government.

Hedges has always claimed his innocence, maintaining he was researching the UAE’s security strategy for his doctoral thesis at Durham University.

The UAE, however, showed footage at a news conference in which Hedges purportedly confessed to being an MI6 foreign intelligence agent.

The video, which Emirati officials did not allow journalists to record, purportedly showed Hedges describing himself as a captain in MI-6 during what appears to be a court hearing in the Gulf Arab country.

A UAE official said that the presidential pardon came in response to a letter by Hedges's family delivered by a British official.

Daniela Tejada, Hedges' wife, told BBC that she does not believe her husband is a spy, saying the ordeal has "been an absolutely nightmarish seven months."

"I can't wait to have him back" she said and added, "in my heart, I know that he isn't a spy."

Asked about her husband being pardoned, rather than having the spying conviction quashed, Tejada said that "if that is what it takes for him to be back, I just welcome the news."

Hedges was arrested on May 5 at Dubai airport.

Britain ‘grateful’ for pardon

Responding to the announcement, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed gratitude to the UAE for the pardon.

"Fantastic news about Matthew Hedges. Although we didn't agree with charges we are grateful to UAE govt for resolving issue speedily," Hunt said on Twitter.

The case sparked an outcry in Britain and in the academic community examining the Middle East across the world.

Members of the British University and College Union (UCU) voted to refuse to work at the University of Birmingham’s Dubai campus. More than 200 academics at New York University (NYU) signed a letter urging the university’s president to “make it clear” that the UAE’s treatment and sentencing of Hedges had “grave implications for NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus.

Welcoming the news of the pardon, Human Rights Watch chief Kenneth Roth however tweeted that “Matthew Hedges should never have been imprisoned”.

Roth also called for the release of “other political prisoners such as human rights defender Ahmed Manoor”.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has documented serious allegations of violations of due process and fair trial guarantees in the UAE, especially in state security-related cases. These include allegations of torture and ill-treatment at state security facilities.

The UAE state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said Monday’s pardon allowed the two countries to refocus on developing their relations.

"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 in a statement.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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