Foreign Office failed to notice torture of British academic in UAE
According to the UK’s parliamentary ombudsman, Foreign Office officials failed to notice signs of torture when visiting a British academic imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates.
Matthew Hedges was convicted of spying by the UAE in 2018 after traveling to Dubai for research for his PhD at Durham University. He spent six months in prison, handcuffed, drugged, and questioned for hours before he was pardoned from a life sentence for spying.
According to the ombudsman, it is difficult to imagine the experiences Mr Hedges has endured, and how frightening his detention must have been. Being failed by the British government made the nightmare even worse. They let him down when he relied on them for help. The officials failed to notice signs of torture, failed to intervene, and failed to assist.”
According to Hedges, he hopes the finding will prevent similar circumstances from occurring again.
“It was a personal victory for me to know that it wasn’t just my experience, but others also recognized that the abuse I suffered for a prolonged period of time didn’t just happen in my head, it happened to me. “This is the first step in enabling me to truly heal,” he said.
After waiting for the Foreign Office to investigate, which never happened, he turned to the ombudsman. It’s been a long time since we heard anything.”
According to the ombudsman, the Foreign Office policy of not raising complaints or allegations without consent contributed to not pursuing Hedges’ claims of torture.
The ombudsman’s findings noted: “The director [a senior Foreign Office official] admitted the policy may appear illogical in circumstances where a detained person feels they cannot communicate freely. In spite of this, the policy reflects the reality that some people choose not to report mistreatment or torture to the authorities because they believe it may worsen the situation.”
Hedges’ case was also complicated by the fact that the Foreign Office’s human rights adviser lacked security clearance, a complication the ombudsman said could be overcome.
According to the ombudsman’s report, the Foreign Office did not acknowledge the frequency of UAE torture and mistreatment allegations regarding Hedges in its records made at the time.
Hedges said the Foreign Office knew torture was taking place in the UAE, and that officials would have seen signs, such as when Hedges was joined in the first meeting by “several men in black in masks,” in a “restrictive” and “oppressive” atmosphere.
When asked if he would accept compensation, he said he “wouldn’t turn it down,” but that the £1,500 proposed at the moment was “a paltry sum.”
In addition to a formal apology from the Foreign Office, he stressed that tangible changes needed to help others in similar circumstances. He cited the case of British tourist Ali Issa Ahmad, who was falsely arrested and tortured in the UAE in 2019, and Jagtar Singh Johal, who was unlawfully arrested and tortured in India.
With the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, participating in a hunting trip with the UAE’s ambassador, and two ministers receiving gifts from two Emirati officials Hedges has a lawsuit against for torture, hedges was angry at what he considered a cozy relationship between the UAE and the UK.
According to Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, who campaigned for his release, the ombudsman’s report was “gratifying” and she hoped it would improve citizen accountability.
The consular officials told her that they didn’t have a duty of care towards Hedges, so what they did or didn’t do was up to their discretion, and I should be grateful for that. During that time, she recalls being dismissed when she raised concerns about torture.
A spokesperson for the UAE government said Hedges had been convicted of espionage after a “fair and transparent trial”.
“Mr Hedges’ claims of mistreatment are categorically false and lack evidence to support them. He claims he was tortured in UAE custody, but this is completely untrue and unsubstantiated.
There has never been a court, government, or international body that has accepted Mr Hedges’ claims.”