LONDON — The wife of a British academic sentenced to life in prison for espionage in the United Arab Emirates said Britain's foreign secretary assured her Thursday that the government was now working to get him out of jail after months of inaction to gain his freedom.
Daniela Tejada had earlier told the BBC that Foreign Office officials bungled the case of her husband, 31-year-old Ph.D. student Matthew Hedges, who was arrested May 5 at Dubai Airport after a research trip to the UAE. But after emerging from her meeting with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, she said authorities pledged to "return him home to me."
"He has assured me that he and his team are doing everything in their power to get Matt free and return him home to me," she said. "This is not a fight I can win alone and I thank the Foreign Office and the British public for now standing up for one of their citizens."
Tejada has become her husband's primary advocate, turning up the pressure on the government to act. She told the BBC earlier in the day that the government had failed to robustly intervene on Hedges' behalf during the early stages of his imprisonment, when he was held in solitary confinement under inhumane conditions.
"I was under the impression they were putting their interests with the UAE above a British citizen's rightful freedom and his welfare," Tejada said. "They were stepping on eggshells instead of taking a firm stance."
The verdict, announced Wednesday after a five-minute hearing, caught the British government off guard. Hunt issued a statement saying he had discussed the case with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed during a visit to the country last week and the verdict "runs contrary to earlier assurances."
Hunt said he was "deeply shocked" by the verdict, which "is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom."
Tensions over Hedges' treatment have quickly escalated into a crisis, in part because ties between Britain and the seven emirates of the UAE are considered close and date back 200 years.
The UAE is strategically located on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, and the British military trains with UAE troops. The emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai are home to large numbers of British nationals who work in areas ranging from finance to sports, and thousands of tourists visit the country each year, attracted by sunny beaches, luxury hotels and theme parks.
Ties also include lucrative defense contracts. U.K. companies have a backlog of orders with the UAE worth more than $261 million over the coming decade, according to data from IHS Markit. More importantly, the UAE plans to award another $20 billion of arms contracts over the coming decade — a significant source of potential revenue for Britain, which is set to leave the European Union next year and is seeking to expand trade elsewhere.
Hedges traveled to the UAE to conduct interviews as part of his research into civil-military relations after the Arab Spring. There was "nothing clandestine or covert" in anything he was doing, according to Clive Jones, his Ph.D. supervisor.
The Muslim nation prides itself on being tolerant of foreigners. But British nationals often run afoul of local customs and laws, which prohibit public intoxication, kissing in public and cursing. Most of the time, the violators are deported.
The UAE's vast surveillance network has been used to go after critics, journalists and activists conducting research in sensitive areas. Human rights organizations have been barred from the country after researching the conditions of migrant laborers who do the back-breaking construction work behind the glittering high-rise towers and sprawling shopping malls.
Andreas Krieg, a military and security expert at King's College London, said the UAE sees any information that isn't state-controlled a threat to the regime.
The Hedges sentence was meant to send a message to journalists, rights advocates and academics to take the government line or face the consequences, Krieg said.
"They see civil society as a threat to security," he said, adding that the idea runs contrary to the well-oiled publicity machine that sells the UAE as an attractive investment and tourist attraction. "This is going to be a stain for years and years unless they release him."
Tejada said it had been a horrible time for her husband. As she read a prepared statement outside the Foreign Office, she recalled his shock as the verdict was read.
"Seeing him shaking in court after being handed a life sentence and then being made to leave was beyond heartbreaking," she said. "We didn't even get to say goodbye."