Life Sentence -- and Then a Pardon -- for a Graduate Student

British Ph.D. student in U.A.E. was found guilty of spying after what observers say was an unfair trial in which he was denied due process. Some academics urge Western universities -- including NYU -- to reconsider role of campuses in the Emirates.

November 26, 2018
Matthew Hedges

A Ph.D. student at Britain’s Durham University, who had been sentenced to life in prison by a United Arab Emirates court after being found guilty of spying for the U.K., was pardoned Monday.

Matthew Hedges has denied the spying charges and said that he was conducting academic research. The Guardian reported that the pardon was announced at a press conference Monday, which followed talks over the weekend between the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and U.A.E. officials. Press reports indicated Hedges would be released soon. Al Jazeera quoted Anwar Gargash, the U.A.E. minister of state for foreign affairs, as saying, "His Highness the president’s gracious clemency in the customary National Day pardons allows us to return our focus to the underlying fundamental strength of the U.A.E./U.K. bi-lateral relationship and its importance to the international community. It was always a U.A.E. 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 U.A.E.'s best efforts."

The Hedges case led many academic groups to demand his release, and also to question the ties of Western universities to the U.A.E. Whether those questions will continue to be raised after the pardon is not yet clear.

The Middle East Studies Association said in a letter about Hedges's case prior to the pardon that he was arrested in May at the Dubai airport at the end of a two-week research trip and that his dissertation focuses on "civil-military relations in the U.A.E. and examines how concepts of regime security have evolved since 2011," the year of the Arab Spring. MESA's board recently issued a statement citing the prosecution of Hedges as evidence of an “intensification of threats” against researchers and resident scholars in the U.A.E.

Hedges's family reported that he was sentenced after a five-minute hearing in which he was not represented by a lawyer, according to CNN. The family also said that Hedges was forced to sign a confession in Arabic, a language he does not read or speak.

Human Rights Watch has previously reported that Hedges was detained for months before being formally charged or granted access to lawyers, denying his due process rights. The human rights group also reported that Hedges was held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods.

Prior to the pardon, Britain's foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, described Hedges's sentence as "extremely worrying."

"We have seen no evidence to back up charges against him," Hunt said on Twitter. "U.A.E. claim to be friend & ally of the U.K. so there will be serious diplomatic consequences. Unacceptable."

The vice chancellor of Durham University, Stuart Corbridge, said in a statement he was “devastated” by Hedges’s sentencing.

"Following a period in which he was detained in conditions which breached his human rights this judgment has been delivered in the absence of anything resembling due process or a fair trial,” Corbridge said. “There has been no information given on what basis Matt was handed this sentence and no reason to believe that Matt was conducting anything other than legitimate academic research."

The sentencing could have implications for the U.A.E.'s extensive international academic ties. The country is home to a number of British branch campuses, as well as a branch of New York University in Abu Dhabi. An online petition calling for a boycott of all U.A.E.-based institutions -- as well as all institutions that have campuses in the U.A.E. -- had received more than 100 signatures as of Sunday afternoon. 

The BBC reported that the University and College Union members at the University of Birmingham voted after Hedges's sentencing last week to boycott the university's new Dubai campus. The UCU at the University of Exeter also passed a motion calling on the university to suspend its academic relationships with the U.A.E. Hedges's institution, Durham University, is recommending a moratorium on all non-U.A.E. staff and student travel to the Emirates.

More than 200 faculty and students signed an open letter to NYU president Andrew Hamilton calling on him to "issue a public statement condemning the arrest and sentencing of Matthew Hedges, as well as his prolonged detention under conditions tantamount to torture. The statement should make it clear that the U.A.E.’s treatment and sentencing of Mr. Hedges have grave implications for NYU’s ongoing operation in Abu Dhabi."

The letter also called on NYU to establish a permanent standing committee on academic freedom comprised of representatives from all of NYU's global sites, and for the NYU administration to "establish steps to be taken whenever government officials or policies encroach upon academic freedom of students or faculty at a campus or program site. Information about such encroachments, when they occur, should be publicly available."

In a statement an NYU spokesman said the university was not privy to the details of Hedges's case. "It would of course be a source of significant concern to us if someone engaged in routine scholarly activity were imprisoned for it," said NYU's spokesman, John Beckman. "However it is important to note that we do not have any information regarding the case of Mr. Hedges beyond what has been publicly reported. NYU and NYU Abu Dhabi strongly encourage and assist the conducting of research and scholarship that is essential to our educational mission, to the advancement of knowledge, and to the intellectual growth of the faculty."

Beckman added, "Protocols and policies related to the conduct and support of research and scholarship have been adopted to advance our academic mission, to ensure compliance with applicable laws and ethical norms, and to support our researchers, their research, and research subjects."

John Archer, a professor of English at NYU and one of the organizers of the open letter, described NYU's response as potentially harmful to Hedges's case.

"To state that we only have information on Matt's case from public reports implies he may have done something wrong," Archer said. "It is eerily similar to Trump's response to the [Jamal] Khashoggi murder, which claimed 'We may never know all of the facts surrounding the event.' It shows a distrust of media and implies that NYUAD's strong encouragement of research is proper, in a manner unlike Matt's research in the Durham program. It in fact contradicts what [U.K. foreign minister Jeremy] Hunt has said and also Matt's [member of Parliament's] statement that he is not a spy, as well as the Durham [vice chancellor's] statement that his research was in accord with Durham's scholarly standards and there is no reason to suppose anything else. President Hamilton is out of step, then, with what is known."

"The only way to gain his release and perhaps forestall later academic arrests of Emirati and foreign scholars is for foreign institutions like ours to keep up the pressure on the U.A.E.," Archer added. "We have both a special responsibility and exceptional influence. Instead, we are using our access to undermine both media and, remarkably, U.K. government reports, implying perhaps a special knowledge of Matt's guilt or at least irregularity in research practice."

In its letter on Hedges's sentencing, issued Sunday, the Middle East Studies Association's Committee on Academic Freedom said that no evidence had been produced to back up Hedges's sentence. "We believe that Mr. Hedges’ conviction for espionage betrays a fundamental and/or willful misunderstanding of the nature of field-based academic research, and that the extraordinarily disproportionate nature of his sentence will inflict incalculable damage on the reputation of the U.A.E. as a safe and welcoming place for students and scholars conducting research in and on your country," says the letter. The letter noted particular alarm by a suggestion in an English-language Gulf newspaper that Hedges may have been turned into Emirati authorities by one of his interviewees. 

The U.A.E. ambassador to the U.K., H.E. Sulaiman Hamid Almazroui, said in a statement that the government is "studying" a request by Hedges's family for clemency. But he defended the country's judicial process.

"Matthew Hedges was not convicted after a five-minute show trial, as some have reported," Almazroui said. "Over the course of one month, three judges evaluated compelling evidence in three hearings."

"They reached their conclusion after a full and proper process. This was an extremely serious case … This was also an unusual case. Many researchers visit the U.A.E. freely every year without breaking our laws."



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