The United Arab Emirates has said it wants to reach an amicable conclusion to the dispute over the British academic Matthew Hedges, who was jailed for life on espionage charges this week.
The apparent change in tone, viewed as a possible precursor to an act of clemency, came after the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, warned of serious diplomatic consequences if Hedges was not released, and followed a torrent of cross-party British criticism accusing the UAE courts of a miscarriage of justice.
Sulaiman Almazroui, the UAE’s ambassador in London, was due to issue a statement at 10am GMT on Friday, according to the BBC.
Hunt spoke to his opposite number in the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, late on Thursday afternoon in what he described as “a constructive conversation”. Hunt tweeted: “I believe he is working hard to resolve the situation as soon as possible. We have a close partnership with the UAE which will help us to take things forward.”
The suggestion of an amicable solution may spark hopes that a pardon could be considered over the coming days. It has been traditional for the government to grant a large number of pardons at the time of the UAE’s National Day, which happens to be next Thursday. Hedges was allowed a formal appeal against his jail term within 30 days of his sentencing, but some Gulf sources said the issue could be resolved by the end of the week.
Earlier in the day, Hunt had what was described as a frank conversation with Sulaiman Hamid Almazroui, the UAE’s ambassador to London. Hunt has a range of potential diplomatic and economic sanctions at his disposal if Hedges was not released, but at present the Foreign Office has not been emphasising that option.
The UAE said on Thursday afternoon: “Officials from both countries have discussed the matter regularly over recent months. Both sides hope to find an amicable solution to the Matthew Hedges case.” It insisted that Hedges had been treated fairly and said it was determined to protect its important strategic relationship with Britain – a key ally.
Rejecting claims that Hedges had been forced to make confessions under duress, the UAE foreign ministry said Hedges had been provided with translators and “it is not true that he was asked to sign documents he did not understand”.
The UAE earlier said the sentencing hearing this week, which lasted only five minutes, was largely a formality, since Hedges had already been found guilty of espionage, a conviction that could have led to the death penalty.
Late on Thursday, the government stressed “compelling and powerful” evidence was shown in support of prosecuting Hedges. Abdulla Al Naqbi, head of the department of legal affairs at the ministry of foreign affairs and international cooperation, said the case had been “thoroughly investigated” and warned the government “does not attempt to interfere in court cases”.
Academics have said that Hedges may have inadvertently put himself at risk by his “sharp analysis” of the UAE’s shifting security politics. The country presents itself as a modernising, socially liberal force in the Gulf, but dissent has been repressed.
On Thursday Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, said she wanted Hunt to do whatever it took to bring her husband home. She said it was absurd that the UAE had found Hedges guilty of spying on an ally of Britain, and accused the Foreign Office of refusing to take the case seriously at the outset.
Tejada said the Foreign Office had repeatedly told her it had no duty of care for Hedges, a PhD student at the University of Durham. “I was under the impression that they were putting their interests with the UAE above a British citizen’s right to freedom and a fair trial. They were treading on eggshells,” she said.
But in a later statement issued after her meeting with Hunt, she toned down her criticism, saying: “[Hunt] has assured me that he and his team are doing everything in their power to get Matt free and return him home to me. This is not a fight I can win alone and I thank the Foreign Office for now standing up for one of their citizens.”
She said her husband was shaking in court as his sentence was read out, and he had to ask the translator for it to be given a second time. Tejada was given no chance to speak to Hedges after he was taken away, and she has been seeking assurances that he would no longer be kept in solitary confinement.
Tejada said any confessions extracted from her husband when he was in solitary confinement for six weeks without access to legal counsel were worthless. “It means there was no due process and the evidence is unfounded and should not be used against him,” she said.
She said Hedges was given legal advice only after three court hearings, and the Foreign Office had not acted on her weekly requests for it to be more proactive.
The UAE said an appeal against the ruling could happen within a month, and there were signs that the country’s diplomatic service was aware that the case was seriously damaging UK-UAE relations. The UAE has built strong support on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons, but the case has put this under strain.
The Tory MPs Johnny Mercer and Crispin Blunt condemned the jailing of Hedges and called for the British government to act.
Mercer tweeted: “This is ridiculous. Our defence assistance, mentoring and intelligence relationships alone with this country should preclude absurd things like this happening. From a friend and partner, simply unacceptable. Consequences must be immediate until he is released.”