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British academic jailed by the UAE for spying is pardoned with immediate effect

Key Points
  • Matthew Hedges was given a life sentence in the United Arab Emirates on charges of espionage.
  • On Monday, he was pardoned with immediate effect, overturning a life sentence handed down five days earlier.
  • Hedges was first arrested in May for allegedly "seeking classified information on the UAE," according to prosecutors.
  • The U.K. and UAE have long enjoyed a strong alliance on trade, security and defense.
British academic Matthew Hedges, who was jailed for spying in the UAE, is seen in this undated photo. Hedges was pardoned on 26 November, 2018. 

British academic Matthew Hedges, who was given a life sentence in the United Arab Emirates on charges of espionage, has been pardoned with immediate effect.

The sudden development overturns a life sentence handed down by an Abu Dhabi court on November 21. It comes more than six months after the 31-year old Durham University PhD candidate was first imprisoned.

Hedges was detained on May 5 while leaving the country via Dubai airport after a two-week visit. He was arrested for allegedly "seeking classified information on the UAE" and asking sensitive questions about various government departments involved in national security. According to Hedges' family, he was researching the Arab country's domestic and foreign security strategy, as well as its role in the Yemen war.

He was charged with "spying for a foreign country, jeopardizing the military, political and economic security of the state," but the ruling was not final and allowed him the right to appeal. The academic has consistently denied the charges, maintaining he was carrying out research on the Arab Spring's impact on Emirati foreign policy.

The UAE's attorney general said Hedges confessed to the spying charges, but his family said he was made to sign a confession statement written in Arabic, a language he does not speak. He was held in solitary confinement and not allowed legal representation in his first two court appearances, according to media reports and Hedges' family members.

The Emirati Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation has denied Hedges was given documents he did not understand. Its head of legal affairs Abdullah Al Naqbi said in a statement last week that Hedges was given a court-appointed lawyer, and treated fairly and in accordance with the UAE constitution.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt publicly expressed their concern over the case, stressing the urgency of finding a solution with the UAE as the two countries have been longtime allies on trade, security and defense. May told the House of Commons on Wednesday that "we will continue to press this matter at the highest level with the Emiratis."

The UAE government on Monday described the pardon as part of orders issued for the country's National Day anniversary, December 2, which this year marks the 47th year since the union of the seven emirates that form the UAE. Hedges was one of more than 700 prisoners pardoned by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan in honor of the day.