UK ordered to apologise to academic over alleged torture in UAE

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The UK government was on Thursday ordered to apologise and pay £1,500 in compensation to a British academic imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates and allegedly tortured in 2018, causing a rupture between London and its Gulf ally.

The parliamentary ombudsman said there was a “profound failure” by British embassy staff in missing signs of potential torture when they visited Matthew Hedges, a doctoral candidate at Durham university, in prison in the UAE.

Hedges was arrested at Dubai airport in early May 2018 on suspicion of being a British spy after conducting research for his PhD thesis on military developments following the Arab Spring. He was given a life sentence in November the same year, only to be pardoned days later as his case threatened to derail the country’s close ties with Britain.

Following his release the relationship between the two governments has improved, although both sides continue to disagree over the true nature of Hedges’ role in Abu Dhabi.

Hedges said he was interrogated for up to 15 hours a day, kept in solitary confinement and forcibly administered with medication after being sentenced to life in jail. The UAE has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Hedges.

The academic, who has previously criticised the government’s failure to launch a promised inquiry after he returned to the UK, said he was supervised at all times by prison guards who told him what he was allowed to say when he was visited by embassy officials in 2018. 

He made an official complaint to the ombudsman, accusing the Foreign Office of failing to follow its own guidance on detecting potential torture and mistreatment. The ombudsman noted that Hedges’ voice was audibly shaking when British embassy staff came to visit him and that he avoided making eye contact and told them he was having panic attacks. 

Foreign Office guidelines state that staff should act on warning signs of mental and physical stress of British detainees even when the officials do not have the consent of the individual. The ombudsman found that Foreign Office staff should have been aware that Hedges was not in a position to consent. 

Rebecca Hilsenrath, the ombudsman’s chief executive, said it was “hard to imagine” what Hedges endured and that his “nightmare was made even worse by being failed by the British government”. 

She added: “We have asked the [Foreign Office] to make sure it will fully use all its powers to protect British citizens abroad and ensure that they are there precisely when they are most needed,” she said. The ombudsman also called on the government to apologise to Hedges and pay him £1,500 in compensation.

The UK government said it would review the ombudsman’s findings and respond in due course. “The best interests of British nationals, including those detained overseas, is at the heart of our consular work and we support their families wherever we can,” it said.

The UAE government said allegations of mistreatment of Hedges were categorically false and lacked any evidentiary basis. “His claims of being ‘tortured’ while in UAE custody are wholly untrue and without any foundation whatsoever,” it said in a statement.

“Mr Hedges received entirely proper care and treatment. He had bedding, reading material, a television, access to family, consular officials and lawyers, and extensive medical care . . . He was never subjected to, or threatened with, either torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of any sort.” 


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