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Durham student jailed for life in UAE for 'spying'

A British PhD student has been sentenced to life imprisonment by a United Arab Emirates (UAE) court on charges of spying for the UK government.

Matthew Hedges, a 31-year-old PhD student at Durham University, was arrested at Dubai airport in May as he tried to leave the country following a research trip. He had been studying the country's security policies for a thesis; Kristian Ulrichsen, an academic, and friend of the student—who is himself banned from entering the UAE due to some of his writing—has commented that Matthew is the 'sharpest analysts' he has ever met.

After his arrest, Mr. Hedges was reportedly held in solitary confinement for five months. His wife said his rights were being 'violated on a daily basis'.

Mr. Hedges has been accused of—and sentenced to life imprisonment for—spying for and on behalf of a foreign state [the UK], which both he and the UK government have firmly denied.

A representative of the Hedges family has, according to The Telegraph, stated that Matthew's 'lawyer was not in court on Wednesday to represent him and the trial lasted just five minutes.' The UAE ambassador to the UK's claim today that the trial was not short and that a 'full and proper process' took place adds a little confusion to this.

Perhaps most shockingly, UAE prosecutors have said Mr. Hedges actually pleaded guilty after hearing 'compelling evidence' on the case.

It appears, however, that this claim is rather off the mark; his family has pointed out that Mr. Hedges did sign a document in Arabic during his detention period which later transpired to be a confession, but that he 'does not speak or read Arabic'.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been in talks with the foreign secretary of the UAE, along with other high officials, and has said the close partnership between the two countries should help the resolution of the case (see below).

Mr. Hedges wife has, in a number of statements, described the state of her husband following the news of his conviction:

'He is just absolutely terrified at the idea of having to spend the rest of his life behind bars for an offence he hasn't committed. His panic attacks have become worse than they were before, however, he did say he has access to a doctor.

'I don't know yet whether he has been able to have access to the prescription he had been given during this time of bail, which was working wonders for him.

'I wasn't allowed to know where he is, we still don't know anything about his whereabouts.'

In response to Mr. Hedges' sentence, academics at the University of Birmingham have started a boycott of the recently opened Dubai campus of the university. A motion, passed by University and College Union (UCU) members, has called for staff to 'refuse to engage with the Dubai campus unless explicitly required to in their contract'.

A Middle East correspondent for The Telegraph has pointed out (see above) that next Thursday (the 29th) is UAE National Day, 'traditionally a day when pardons are granted.' Indeed, on this day last year, 1,497 prisoners were granted pardon by the country's leaders—perhaps a slight glimmer of hope for Mr. Hedges and his family.

Let us hope, for the sake of Mr. Hedges and his family (as well as, of course, academic freedom), that the case will be speedily resolved.