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Matthew Hedges, former UAE detainee, demands 'acknowledgement' of abuse

British academic imprisoned for seven months in Gulf nation says he wants Abu Dhabi held accountable for his ordeal
'I'm not going to let my experience and my prosecution stand,' said Hedges (R) on Tuesday (MEE/Ali Harb)

WASHINGTON - He was detained for seven months, held in solitary confinement, had drugs forced on him and was sentenced to life in prison.

Now, British academic Matthew Hedges is free - and demanding accountability.

"I'm not going to let my experience and my prosecution stand," Hedges said at an event hosted by the American Society of International Law (ASIL) in Washington on Tuesday.

Imprisoned by the United Arab Emirates on spying charges last year and subsequently pardoned after pressure from the British government, Hedges called on countries to reexamine their ties to authoritarian governments, including the UAE.

"I've instructed a lawyer to clear my name and hold the UAE accountable for the actions they took in my detention and sentencing," he said.

Both Hedges and the UK government have strongly denied the UAE's allegations that the academic was involved in spying or has any ties to British intelligence agency MI6.

Asked about the form of accountability he is seeking, Hedges told Middle East Eye: an "acknowledgement".

Hedges said getting the Emirati government to admit to wrongdoing in his case would be the first step.

"It's obviously something that is going to be very difficult to achieve, but that's very important to make them realise and understand that the reactions and decisions and behaviours they undertook - it was illegal and it was unjustified," he told MEE.

Gulf abuses in the 'spotlight'

Hedges, a doctoral student at Durham University in the UK, was researching the UAE's security regime after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

On Tuesday, he stressed that all aspects of his studies largely depended on publicly available resources, dismissing the notion of any secretive work.

He added that throughout his last trip to the UAE, he closely followed the protocols and conditions imposed on him by the government as he conducted his research.

Speaking at the event on Tuesday, Hedges recalled the conditions of his detention, which culminated in a five-minute court hearing during which he was handed a life sentence.

I was not told why I was being held and I was denied a lawyer. For the next six months, I was interrogated and held in solitary confinement and subject to inhuman, humiliating treatment

- Matthew Hedges

"I was not told why I was being held and I was denied a lawyer. For the next six months, I was interrogated and held in solitary confinement and subject to inhuman, humiliating treatment," Hedges said.

"I was on several occasions threatened with acts of physical torture, including rendition to an overseas Emirati military base."

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, along with his own ordeal, have put human rights abuses in the Gulf region in the "spotlight", Hedges said.

"People should be aware of what's hidden just underneath the surface, and that's not just in the UAE; that's across the region," he told MEE. "They're very sharp, very good at presenting a certain image. It's important for people to educate themselves about their behaviour."

He called for greater scrutiny of Gulf-funded think tanks and academic programmes in Western countries, particularly in the United States capital, where Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have poured millions of dollars in an effort to steer conversations about the Middle East.

"In the US, the danger is that it starts to influence dialogue or issues to further an agenda that might not be in the best interests here," he said.