The wife of a Durham University PhD student who has been held in solitary confinement in the United Arab Emirates for nearly six months has denied he is a spy and called on the Foreign Office to “actively advocate for his freedom”.
Matthew Hedges, 31, was arrested at Dubai international airport on 5 May on his way home from a two-week research trip and was held on what appear to be espionage charges.
After breaking with Foreign Office advice to rely on private diplomatic channels to secure his release, his wife, Daniela Tejada, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that her husband suffered from anxiety and depression and had been forced to sleep on the floor for four months.
She said the idea that he was a spy was absurd, pointing out he had been travelling around Dubai with a tape recorder and microphone.
“If he was a spy he would be a terrible one,” she said. “What kind of spy goes to a country with a questionnaire, a dictaphone and asks questions openly? If he was given any confidential information, it is not his fault, it is the fault of whoever gave it to him.”
Hedges has been allowed two visits by Foreign Office officials and one visit by his wife. The foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said on Thursday he was “extremely concerned” about Hedges’ case. He tweeted: “Have raised twice with foreign minister and stressed the need for regular consular access, fair & humane treatment as well as due process which is essential.”
Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow academic at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, said: “Matt is a friend and one of the sharpest analysts I know. He’s no spy.”
Hedges was arrested after an Emirati apparently reported him to the authorities for “asking sensitive questions about some sensitive departments” and “seeking to gather classified information on the UAE”.
He was researching aspects of the UAE’s foreign and domestic security strategy, including the war in Yemen. The UAE, like many Gulf states, is more tolerant socially than politically, accepting little internal criticism.
Emirati press claimed Hedges had confessed to the charges against him and the case had been passed to the state security court. There is no independent confirmation of this claim. Hedges has been brought to court in Abu Dhabi twice this month, on 3 and 10 October, and the case was adjourned on both occasions.
It is likely UAE prosecutors believe he was preparing to hand information to a foreign power, possibly Qatar, with which the UAE is at odds.
Tejada said she had not yet been advised of the charges he was facing. In her radio interview she said: “I tried to follow the Foreign Office advice and not go to the media, but after nearly six months of so much injustice being played against Matt I just felt I could no longer withstand my pain and his own and let things run their course.”
She said her husband was mostly being held in solitary confinement, without any access to books.
Amnesty International called for Hedges’ immediate release. “It’s unfortunately all too common for the Emirati authorities to hold people incommunicado for months on end,” said Polly Truscott, of Amnesty. “If [Hedges] is being held simply for having conducted academic research into the country’s security services, he should be released immediately.”
Reports began circulating in Emirati media last month that spying allegations were being brought against an unnamed foreigner who had asked “sensitive questions about some sensitive departments” and “[sought] to gather classified information on the UAE” for a foreign agency.
Durham University said it was “seriously concerned” for Hedges’ welfare. Its school of government and international affairs, where Hedges is based, has banned all student research travel to the UAE until the reasons for his detention have been established.
The UAE’s government media office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.