The wife of a British student who was sentenced to life in prison for spying in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has condemned the United Kingdom government for putting diplomatic relations before an “innocent man’s freedom”.
Daniela Tejada told the BBC on Thursday that UK Foreign Office officials bungled the 31-year-old PhD student Matthew Hedges’ case.
Tejada, who is due to meet the UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, said British officials gave “the impression they were putting their interests with the UAE above a British citizen’s rightful freedom and his welfare”. She added that they were “stepping on eggshells instead of taking a firm stance”.
Britain views the UAE as a strategic Middle East ally which it supplies with arms.
Hedges was arrested at Dubai airport on May 5 and has been held in detention since. His sentencing on Wednesday shocked the UK and put political pressure on the foreign secretary.
He was researching the UAE’s foreign and internal security policies after the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, studies that Britain insisted were entirely innocuous, but which the UAE said threatened its political and economic security.
On Thursday, Hunt warned the UAE of “serious diplomatic consequences” over the case.
Prime Minister Theresa May also told a session of the parliament she was “deeply disappointed” and instructed the Foreign Office to “continue to press this matter at the highest level with the Emiratis”.
Al Jazeera’s Paul Brennan, reporting from London, said the sentence may have come as a shock to the Foreign Office, especially after they had a meeting with a UAE leader 10 days ago.
“Apparently [Hunt] was given assurances about Hedges’ fate and the likely outcome of the proceedings, those assurances appear to have been worthless,” Brennan said, adding that Tejada has also been critical of the UAE’s handling of the case.
“The family are extremely unhappy with the process that was followed, that he was held without being told what the charges against him were.”
Tejada said she pleaded with the Foreign Office to force the UAE to release Hedges from solitary confinement throughout his pre-trial detention.
“They just disregarded my requests. They said that it wasn’t part of their job, that it wasn’t part of their duty.”
Her voice broke down several times as she described the fear that gripped her husband during the sentencing.
“He was very, very scared when he was standing in front of the judge,” said Tejada. “He started shaking when the translator told him the sentence. He actually had to ask to double-check if he had heard right.”
In a separate interview with the Reuters news agency, Tejada called on the Emirati authorities to free him.
“Handing a life sentence to an innocent researcher who held the UAE in high regard speaks volumes about their lack of tolerance and respect for human life,” she said. “They must review their sentence and release my husband who has already had more than six months taken away from us.”
Meanwhile, lecturers at the University of Birmingham will refuse to teach in Dubai or provide the Abu Dhabi campus with any support following the sentencing, reported The Guardian.
“We call on the university to enter into meaningful negotiations with the trade unions to ensure they protect the safety and wellbeing of staff and students on the Dubai campus,” James Brackley, president of the Birmingham branch of the University and College Union (UCU), said.
“We also call on them to hold back on the expansion of the campus until safeguards are in place.”