British government warns Gulf state verdict in case of Matthew Hedges puts relations at risk.

British student Matthew Hedges has been sentenced to life imprisonment in the United Arab Emirates for allegedly spying on behalf of the UK government, complicating relations between the two close allies.Hedges’ family said the Durham university PhD candidate, who was arrested in May, was sentenced during a five-minute hearing on Wednesday at a court in the capital, Abu Dhabi, without his lawyer in attendance.“I am in complete shock and I don’t know what to do. Matthew is innocent,” his wife Daniela Tejada said in a statement.

“The (UK) Foreign Office know this and have made it clear to the UAE authorities that Matthew is not a spy for them.”She called on the British government to take a stand for her husband, who has suffered from depression. He was shaking when he heard the verdict, she said.Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s foreign secretary, warned that the sentence could threaten relations between Britain and the UAE and urged the Gulf state to reconsider.

Recommended WorldJailing of UAE dissenter prompts outcry by rights groups“Today’s verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances,” he said in a statement. “I have repeatedly made clear that the handling of this case by the UAE authorities will have repercussions for the relationship between our two countries, which has to be built on trust.”Prime Minister Theresa May said she was “deeply disappointed and concerned” about the case and would be raising it with the Emirati authorities “at the highest level”.

Hamad al-Shamsi, the UAE’s attorney-general, said Hedges had been sentenced after pleading guilty to the charges. He has the right to appeal against the verdict at the federal supreme court, where evidence could be re-examined, the attorney-general added.Hedges, 31, plans to appeal against the verdict. He was detained at Dubai airport as he was leaving the country after carrying out interviews for his thesis relating to UAE military development in the post-Arab Spring environment.

During the first six weeks of more than five months in solitary confinement, he was interrogated without a lawyer or consular access and signed a document in Arabic which has since been disclosed as a confession, according to his wife. He does not speak or read Arabic.The sentencing comes amid increasing scrutiny on the Gulf’s autocracies after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.The UAE has cracked down on political dissent and free speech in the wake of the popular uprisings that rocked the Middle East in 2011, jailing Emirati members of an Islamist group and other activists who had called for more democracy.

Abu Dhabi, alongside Saudi Arabia, its close ally, has led efforts to contain the expansion of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and Iran across the Middle East. The two allies have led an embargo on neighbouring Qatar over its links to Islamism and launched a bloody war in Yemen to oust the Iran-allied Houthi militia.The shifting regional environment has caused some tensions with the UK, a longstanding ally, over Abu Dhabi’s perception that London was reluctant to regard Islamism as an existential threat to the Gulf monarchies.

While the two countries have historically enjoyed close security and intelligence co-operation in the region, the UAE has wielded its military might as major arms buyer at the vanguard of a more muscular foreign policy to fill a perceived western vacuum in the wake of the Arab uprisings.The UAE, a former UK protectorate home to around 100,000 Britons, is the UK’s largest export market in the Middle East and the 13th biggest globally — the UK has issued licences for at least £552m of arms sales to the country over the past three years.

The seven-member federation is a major investor in the British economy and London, often dubbed the eighth emirate, is a popular escape for Emiratis from the summer heat.People familiar with the situation have suggested that the historic bilateral relationship may lead to his early release and deportation via a pardon, perhaps on compassionate grounds.Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati commentator and former academic, said the UAE remained a safe place for research, describing the case against Hedges as “solid”.

But overseas academics were appalled at the decision. “It is an alarming day for human rights and academia today,” the Gulf studies centre at Exeter University tweeted.Professor Stuart Corbridge, vice-chancellor of Durham University, said: “We are committed to doing what we can to get Matt home safely and swiftly.”“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.”

Additional reporting by Henry Mance in London


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