A Ph.D. student at Britain's Durham University, who had been sentenced to life in prison by a United Arab Emirates court after being found guilty of spying for the U.K., was pardoned Monday.
Matthew Hedges has denied the spying charges and said that he was conducting academic research. The Guardian reported that the pardon was announced at a press conference Monday, which followed talks over the weekend between the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and U.A.E. officials. Press reports indicated Hedges would be released soon. Al Jazeera quoted Anwar Gargash, the U.A.E. minister of state for foreign affairs, as saying, "His Highness the president's gracious clemency in the customary National Day pardons allows us to return our focus to the underlying fundamental strength of the U.A.E./U.K. bi-lateral relationship and its importance to the international community. It was always a U.A.E. hope that this matter would be resolved through the common channels of our longstanding partnership. This was a straightforward matter that became unnecessarily complex despite the U.A.E.'s best efforts."
The Hedges case led many academic groups to demand his release, and also to question the ties of Western universities to the U.A.E. Whether those questions will continue to be raised after the pardon is not yet clear.
The Middle East Studies Association said in a letter about Hedges's case prior to the pardon that he was arrested in May at the Dubai airport at the end of a two-week research trip and that his dissertation focuses on "civil-military relations in the U.A.E. and examines how concepts of regime security have evolved since 2011," the year of the Arab Spring. MESA's board recently issued a statement citing the prosecution of Hedges as evidence of an "intensification of threats" against researchers and resident scholars in the U.A.E.
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In its letter on Hedges's sentencing, issued Sunday, the Middle East Studies Association's Committee on Academic Freedom said that no evidence had been produced to back up Hedges's sentence. "We believe that Mr. Hedges' conviction for espionage betrays a fundamental and/or willful misunderstanding of the nature of field-based academic research, and that the extraordinarily disproportionate nature of his sentence will inflict incalculable damage on the reputation of the U.A.E. as a safe and welcoming place for students and scholars conducting research in and on your country," says the letter. The letter noted particular alarm by a suggestion in an English-language Gulf newspaper that Hedges may have been turned into Emirati authorities by one of his interviewees.
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