British citizen, and PhD student Matthew Hedges, 31, was arrested last May at Dubai airport as he sought to return to the UK after a research trip for his doctoral thesis at Durham University. He was transferred to an undisclosed detention facility in Abu Dhabi, accused of “spying for a foreign agency”. Matthew has been held mostly incommunicado ever since, and is facing allegations of violating the UAE’s national security.
“Matthew is a respected academic and researcher,” says Radha Stirling, CEO of Detained in Dubai and the leading legal expert on the UAE. “It is alarming that the UAE would accuse him of "spying" simply for pursuing research. We are not aware of the specific subject matter of his research in the UAE, but in the past he has studied the Muslim Brotherhood's activities, influence and agenda in the country, and around the region; and it is possible that the UAE authorities disliked what he has written in the past, and suspect him on purely political and ideological grounds”.
Those accused of national security violations in the UAE can be held without charge indefinitely. Matthew is being kept in solitary confinement, and has only been allowed two visits from consular officials.
Stirling continues, “Matthew's arrest sends a very dangerous signal to the academic community, without whose research and input it will be impossible for policy makers, both within the UAE and in the West, to formulate an informed approach to the region. While the UAE may want to present his arrest as a national security issue, it appears to us more to be a severe curtailment of free speech”.
Stirling explains that the UAE has become increasingly strict on its control of information about the country; censoring local media coverage, criminalising any form of criticism of the government, and restricting the use of social media platforms. “The UAE is extremely committed to controlling the way the country is perceived globally. They have hired PR firms in the US and UK to manage their image and counter any negative media coverage. We have seen them prosecute YouTube satirists in the past, and prohibit independent reviews by Human Rights activists. Detaining Matthew, and accusing him of a national security offence for conducting PhD research is an escalation of the UAE’s hostility towards the free flow of information.
“The UAE clearly wants to control what is said about the country, they want to control their public image, and the way the country is perceived by policy makers abroad. They do not want there to be any representations of the UAE that have not passed inspection by their own censorship bureau.”
But Stirling notes that such severe censorship puts the UAE at odds with the international community. “They need to understand that when you start jailing academic researchers, you immediately lose credibility in the eyes of the global community. They are moving the wrong way on the road between dictatorship and democracy; between despotism and human rights.”
It has been reported that Matthew admitted to working for a “overseas agency”, but Stirling explains that this refers to Gulf State Analytics; “Mr. Hedges is an adviser at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical-risk consultancy. With regard to any reported ‘confession’, it should be kept in mind that the UAE habitually coerces false confessions from detainees, often forcing them to sign documents in Arabic without even knowing what they are signing; either under threat or with the promise of leniency if they comply.”
Stirling says, “Obviously national security is a top concern for any country, and we respect its seriousness. However, this is precisely why the legal process in these matters needs to be transparent. Matthew is a highly esteemed member of the academic community, and it is imperative that he receive a fair hearing and that internationally accepted standards of due process be applied. He needs to be given unrestricted access to consular support, legal counsel, and open communication with his family.”
Tourists and residents must also be aware that they are subject to arrest for posting anything that the UAE government considers to be defamatory. That can include bad weather, political or legal change and even mentioning the disappearance of Princess Latifa. Human rights organisations like Detained in Dubai, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been censored in the country and British courts continue to deny extradition requests based on the “real risk of human rights abuses, unfair trials and torture”. A number of foreigners have been detained under the UAE’s “Cybercrime Laws” that criminalise discussions that Western societies would consider normal, including going so far as to ban the online sharing or promotion of registered charities.