British academic Matthew Hedges, who was jailed for spying in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has arrived in the United Kingdom a day after being pardoned by the Emirati president, ending a seven-month ordeal.
A flight carrying the 31-year-old scholar landed at London’s Heathrow airport on Tuesday morning, according to Reuters news agency.
Abu Dhabi’s Federal Court of Appeal had sentenced the British scholar to life in prison last week after he was convicted of spying and supplying sensitive security information to external actors.
He was among more than 700 people pardoned by President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan on Monday, the country’s national day.
Emirati officials made a point on Monday to insist that the arrest came on solid grounds, showing journalists in Abu Dhabi short video clips of Hedges purportedly acknowledging his intelligence work.
In one video clip, Hedges is seen describing himself as a captain in MI-6 during what appears to be a court hearing in the Gulf Arab country.
Another clip appears to show Hedges speaking to someone in an office and saying: “It helps the research to go in an easy way.”
Then, Hedges is seen snapping his fingers and adds: “Then it becomes MI-6.”
Emirati officials did not allow journalists to record the video.
“He was a part-time PhD researcher, a part-time businessman, but he was a 100 percent full-time secret service operative,” said Jaber al-Lamki, an official with the UAE’s National Media Council.
“Mr Hedges has been found guilty of espionage. He sought out sensitive information he knew had access to it. He was here to steal the UAE’s sensitive national security secrets for his paymasters,” al-Lamki added.
Daniela Tejada, Hedges’ wife, said on Twitter that the pardon was the “best news we could’ve received” but told the BBC that she did not believe her husband is a spy.
“I can’t wait to have him back,” she said. “In my heart, I know that he isn’t a spy.”
The UAE had come under immense pressure from Britain since Hedges, a doctoral student in Middle Eastern studies at Durham University in northern England, was handed a life sentence.
He was arrested at Dubai International Airport on May 5 after a two-week research visit.
The UAE signalled on Friday that it was working on an “amicable solution” to the issue after London described Hedges’ sentence as deeply disappointing.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Twitter that the pardon was “fantastic news” and that the UK was “grateful” the issue was resolved.
In a statement regarding the pardon, Emirati Foreign Minister Dr Anwar Gargash said: “It was always a UAE hope that this matter would be resolved through the common channels of our long-standing partnership. This was a straightforward matter that became unnecessarily complex despite the UAE’s best efforts.”
The International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE (ICFUAE), meanwhile, said the release of Hedges did not “right the wrong of a grossly unfair trial or of [him] being held for months in solitary confinement without access to legal counsel”.
“Matthew’s ordeal should serve as a wake-up call to the UK government on the realities of repression in the UAE. All future relations with the Gulf state must now be conditional on the Emirati regime’s adherence to international human rights legislation,” the ICFUAE said in a statement.
“Let us not forget the scores of other prisoners of conscience who remain detained in the UAE … it is imperative that his case be understood within this wider climate of repression,” it added.