Foreign Office apologises to British academic accused of spying and tortured in the UAE after watchdog ruled officials ‘failed to protect’ the PhD student
- The Foreign Office issued a formal apology to Matthew Hedges on August 31
- The FCDO said it ‘did not fully follow our guidance on torture and mistreatment’
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has admitted that officials ‘did not fully follow our guidance on torture and mistreatment’ in the case of Matthew Hedges.
Mr Hedges was sentenced to life in jail after being arrested at Dubai airport in May 2018. He was held in UAE custody where he suffered intense interrogations and torture amid accusations he was collecting sensitive information which went ‘far beyond’ academic research.
The Durham University researcher was released after being granted a presidential pardon and returned to the UK in November 2018.
The apology – which Mr Hedges has hailed as a ‘watershed moment’ – comes after Parliamentary Ombudsman ruled last month that the FCDO failed to protect Mr Hedges, should issue a formal apology and pay him compensation.
The UAE Government categorically denies torturing Mr Hedges, and said his claims are ‘wholly untrue and without any foundation’.
The FCDO issued a formal apology to Mr Hedges in a letter on August 31 this year, MailOnline can reveal.
In the letter the authority accepted the findings of the parliamentary watchdog’s internal review in full and told Mr Hedges that officials ‘recognise the profound impact of your detention in UAE on you and the injustice you have faced’.
The letter reads: ‘On behalf of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, I acknowledge, and apologise for, the failing identified by the Ombudsman, specifically I recognise that we did not fully follow our guidance on torture and mistreatment and that this failure has left you uncertain as to whether more could have been done on your behalf.’
The Ombudsman, which began its probe in 2019, ruled last month that the FCDO did not act in accordance to its own internal guidance when it came to ‘spotting signs of torture when meeting with British detainees’.
The watchdog recommended the FCDO should issue a formal apology to Mr Hedges within three months, as well as pay him £1,500 in compensation. The Ombudsman also advised that the authority review their internal practices.
Mr Hedges – who last month told MailOnline that he ‘felt completely abandoned’ by the British Government and ‘could not believe that they were not able to understand the very clear and obvious signs of my torture’ – said he is ‘delighted’ to have received the apology from the FCDO.
‘It has been a battle to reach this stage. The FCDO’s acknowledgement of the torture and injustice I suffered at the hands of the UAE is a watershed moment, not just for me and my family, but for all British nationals,’ he told MailOnline on Monday.
‘There is now no doubt that the FCDO failed in their obligations towards one of their citizens and I truly hope that the hundreds of other British nationals who are currently detained and suffering torture will benefit from the FCDO’s promise of reviewing their clearly outdated and insufficient policies.’
However, Mr Hedges claims the apology does not alleviate all of the pain he endured, including the fact that ‘I still have a criminal record for espionage on behalf of the British Government’.
He criticised the Government’s continued relationship with the UAE, saying ‘it is baffling that the UK continues to work alongside the UAE knowing how callous they are with British lives’.
Mr Hedges also called the FCDO to ‘do more to push the UAE to clear my name given that they have this close relationship’. He also acknowledged that the false allegations of espionage were ‘refuted by all levels of the UK Government at the time of my detention’.
Mr Hedges was arrested at Dubai Airport on May 5, 2018, as he was poised to leave the country, having been in the UAE on a two-week research trip for his PhD in security.
He was accused of being an MI6 agent, detained and eventually found guilty on spying offences, before being given an official pardon after a long campaign by his wife Daniela and an intervention from Mr Hunt.
Last month he told MailOnline: ‘The reluctance of the FCDO to protect me – a completely innocent British citizen, within a country that they themselves know commits torture – was one of the most shocking things to deal with during that time.’
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The academic has always fiercely denied being involved with any spying agency and the UK government has previously confirmed it did not see any evidence which supported the state’s claims.
During his detention, Mr Hedges was kept in a windowless cell, and for the first few months was forced to sleep on the floor with the lights constantly switched on.
Mr Hedges also previously revealed that he was forced to take a cocktail of drugs that doctors were made to prescribe for him, was constantly watched and repeatedly interrogated.
While in confinement, he suffered from anxiety and panic and was unable to sleep. After being sentenced to life in prison, he attempted to take his own life.
But he was granted clemency in November 2018 and returned to the UK shortly afterwards.
He submitted his complaint to the Ombudsman in September 2019 and the watchdog last month ruled the FCDO failed to protect him.
The watchdog said embassy staff who visited Mr Hedges while he was in detention noticed his voice was shaking, he avoided eye contact and mentioned having anxiety attacks.
It added these were signs he might have been subject to torture or mistreatment, and that Foreign Office guidelines say that staff should have acted in response even when they do not have consent.
The Ombudsman recommended the authority not only apologise and pay compensation, but also ‘say what it will do to ensure its handling of similar circumstances is consistent with relevant guidance’.
Mr Hedges has now said it is a ‘real shame’ that the ‘long-awaited apology’ only came in response to the parliamentary watchdog’s investigation.
‘I would have hoped that the FCDO would take the initiative to learn from their own mistakes without needing an oversight body to force them to do so,’ the academic told MailOnline on Monday.
‘I cannot overstate how fundamental it is that the FCDO improves its procedures for protecting British citizens that are detained abroad, especially for those like Jaghtar Singh Johal in India, and Alaa Abd El-Fattah in Egypt, who like me, have suffered torture at the hands of the authorities holding them – also British allies.’
Mr Hedges said he will ‘continue to fight for those who are not lucky enough to have been freed’ and for those who have ‘ridiculous false charges made against them’.
He added: ‘And today I revel in the fact that the FCDO have agreed they must do more to protect and help British citizens.’
His vow to continue advocating for other alleged victims of torture, echoes remarks he made last month.
Last month, responding to the Ombudsman’s findings, Mr Hedges said he wants to do everything in his power to warn other British nationals about the dangers of travelling to the UAE, adding ‘there are serious limits to what the FCDO will actually do to help and protect you’.
He told MailOnline at the time: ‘Nothing will ever make up for what I went through, but it feels like a semblance of justice to know that the behaviour of the Foreign Office was unacceptable and to have their failure to protect recognised.’
‘The Foreign Office doesn’t tell you it’s unsafe, but people aren’t educated that this is a country that is known to do this.
‘The FCDO knows the UAE tortures and abuses people, it’s in the report. They know this occurs and they act as if there’s no issue.
‘This is when the anger starts to rise’, he said of individuals he is currently pursuing legal action against. ‘They act as if nothing happened and if something did happen they are disregarding it.
‘They are cosying up to the people involved in this, it questions their morality. I’m not here to say never contact these people. But they saw this torture occur and their acting as if nothing happened.’
Mr Hedges added that he was not angry with the FCDO as a whole, but instead with ‘individuals in the Foreign Office’ who he feels failed to protect him.
Last month, a statement from the UAE government said Mr Hedges was convicted of espionage following a ‘fair and transparent trial at which he admitted the charges against him’.
The UAE government said it provided Mr Hedges with ‘entirely proper care and treatment’.
‘He was never subjected to, or threatened with, either torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of any sort. The UAE has evidence to support this,’ the statement read.
‘Allegations by Mr Hedges of mistreatment are categorically false and lack evidentiary basis. His claims of being “tortured” while in UAE custody are wholly untrue and without any foundation whatsoever.
It added: ‘None of Mr Hedges’ claims have ever been accepted by any court, government, or international body.’
MailOnline has approached the Foreign Office for comment.