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British academic, Matthew Hedges, with his wife Daniela Tejada.  © 2017 Daniela Tejada

(Amman) – The United Arab Emirates detained a British academic for months without charge, denying him his due process rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The abuses raise serious concerns about whether Matthew Hedges, a doctoral candidate at Durham University in England, can get a fair trial in the UAE.

Security forces detained Hedges, 31, on May 5, 2018, denied him effective legal assistance, and finally charged him with spying on October 16. He is due to appear in court next on October 24. His wife, Daniela Tejada, told Human Rights Watch that security forces have held him in prolonged solitary confinement for much of the time. Prolonged solitary confinement is strictly prohibited under international law and can amount to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

“The UAE invests considerable time and money painting itself as a progressive and tolerant country, but Hedges’ case shows the face of an autocratic government with a fundamental lack of respect for the rule of law,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “UAE rulers cannot claim to preside over a global knowledge and education hub while locking up academics for months in solitary confinement.”

Authorities arrested Hedges at Dubai International Airport as he was preparing to leave the country following a two-week trip to the UAE. Tejada said he was there for fieldwork for his doctoral thesis on the impact of Emirati security and foreign policies.

On October 16, the state-owned Emirati newspaper al-Bayan reported that the UAE’s public prosecutor, Hamad al-Shamsi, had referred Hedges to the Abu Dhabi Federal Court of Appeal on state security charges of “spying for a foreign state,” in an act that “jeopardizes the military, economy, and political security of the UAE." Al-Bayan made reference to a prosecution statement in which al-Shamsi claims Hedges came to the UAE “under the guise of an academic researcher.”

Al-Bayan said the statement contended that the charges were based on Hedges’ confession and “evidence secured from his electronic devices; and surveillance and intelligence gathering by UAE intelligence and security agencies.” The conditions of Hedges’ detention, and his lack of access to a lawyer, especially during his interrogation, raise concerns regarding whether his confession was obtained under duress.

Tejada said that UAE authorities detained Hedges incommunicado for the first two weeks and have since held him in solitary confinement in an undisclosed location in Abu Dhabi. She said that his first court hearing wasn’t until October 3 and that security forces did not allow him to access legal counsel until October 10, at his second hearing, more than five months after his arrest.

She said the authorities only informed Hedges about his trial five days in advance and provided little information about the charges or the nature of the court hearing. “This has majorly jeopardized Matt's possibilities to get external legal representation,” Tejada said. She said she had contacted more than 20 lawyers in the UAE trying to find someone to represent her husband, but that they had all declined, saying they didn’t have enough information or time to prepare a case. As a result, Hedges is being represented by a court-appointed lawyer, who, Tejada says, Hedges has difficulty communicating with because the lawyer is not fluent in English.

She said the authorities had allowed her husband to receive only a handful of visits from British officials, one visit from her, and one from other family. She said he told her he was denied weekly showers and forced to sleep on the floor for his first three months in detention. She said that while he was granted access to medical assistance, he was prescribed a “worrying cocktail of antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicine, and sleeping pills” and denied access to a psychiatrist. A UK consular officer told Tejada that Hedges was hospitalized for excessive vomiting on October 9. She has received no information on his medical situation since October 14 and does not know whether he remains hospitalized.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious allegations of violations of due process and fair trial guarantees in the UAE, especially in state security-related cases. These include allegations of torture and ill-treatment at state security facilities.

A May 2015 report on the UAE by the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers confirms the patterns of abuse in the UAE’s handling of state security cases that Human Rights Watch and other independent observers have documented, including denying legal assistance during pretrial incommunicado detention, and admitting coerced confessions as evidence in court proceedings.

The UAE government has become increasingly repressive since 2011. The authorities have carried out a sustained assault on freedom of expression and association, arbitrarily detaining and prosecuting peaceful critics, political dissidents, human rights activists, and academics.

In May, the same month as Hedges’ arrest, an Abu Dhabi court sentenced the award-winning human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor to 10 years in prison for “defaming” the UAE on social media. In March, UAE courts sentenced a prominent Emirati academic, Nasser bin Ghaith, to 10 years in prison. The authorities forcibly disappeared him in August 2015 and brought charges that included peaceful criticism of the UAE and Egyptian authorities.

Allegations of UAE security forces abusing UK nationals are also not new, as revealed in a June 2015 response by the Foreign and Commonwealth office to an access to information request. The response cited 47 complaints by British nationals of torture or mistreatment in the UAE justice system in the previous five years.

British authorities should insist the UAE immediately disclose Hedges’ whereabouts; improve his detention conditions; allow him sufficient access to proper legal representation, consular services, and his family; and guarantee him a fair trial.

“In light of the UAE's record of mistreating state security detainees, and its apparent record of mistreating British nationals, the UK should be raising Hedges’ cases with UAE authorities at the highest levels,” Page said.

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