UK academic Matthew Hedges freed – but UAE still says he is a spy

PhD student Matthew Hedges with his wife Daniela Tejada. Picture: PA
PhD student Matthew Hedges with his wife Daniela Tejada. Picture: PA
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A British academic sentenced to life imprisonment by the United Arab Emirates on an espionage charge has been released from jail after being pardoned by the nation’s 
president.

Matthew Hedges was freed yesterday after a high-profile battle with the Gulf state ally, but officials persisted in calling him an MI6 spy – a claim denied by family and 
colleagues.

The Durham University PhD student, originally from Exeter, was sentenced on 
Wednesday after being arrested at Dubai Airport as he tried to leave on 5 May.

His wife, Daniela Tejada, mounted a campaign to free the 31-year-old and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt personally discussed the case with UAE leaders. BBC Arabic special correspondent Feras Kilani said Mr Hedges was due to fly back into London today.

UAE president Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan approved the family’s appeal for clemency during a traditional tranche of pardons for the state’s national day.

Ms Tejada said news of the pardon brought her family’s “nightmare” to an end.

Mr Hunt described the decision as “fantastic”.

At a news conference in Abu Dhabi, officials showed a video of Mr Hedges describing himself as a captain in MI6 during what appeared to be a court hearing.

An official told reporters at the press conference in Abu Dhabi that Mr Hedges was “100 per cent a full-time secret service operative” who was in the country “to steal the UAE’s sensitive security national secrets for his paymasters”. He said the pardon came in response to a letter from his family appealing for clemency and due to the historical close ties between the UK and UAE.

“His Highness has decided to include Mr Matthew Hedges among the 785 prisoners released,” he said.

In a statement following the pardon, Ms Tejada, from Bogota in Colombia, said: “The presidential pardon for Matt is the best news we could have received. Our six-plus months of nightmare are finally over and to say we are elated is an understatement.

“That he is returning home to me and the rest of his family is much more than I was ever expecting to happen this week. I thank you all for your support.”

Ms Tejada credited media coverage, support from British diplomats, Mr Hunt, academics and members of the public across the world for helping her husband’s cause.

She continued to reject the accusation he was a spy, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In my heart I know that he isn’t.” Mr Hunt described the pardon as a “bittersweet moment” given that Briton Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains detained in Iran, also accused of spying.