Matthew Hedges, the UK citizen held for seven months by the United Arab Emirates, has accused the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, of being tone deaf after he described the Gulf state as a “true friend and valued partner of the UK”.
The foreign secretary made the remark after the UAE donated medical equipment to the UK, but Hedges said it was an example of how authoritarian countries use donations to garner diplomatic respectability.
Hedges, a PhD student at the University of Durham, was detained on a false charge of espionage and held in solitary confinement for seven months by the UAE. In a letter to the Guardian, he said he he found Raab’s remarks very difficult to swallow considering how little the Foreign Office had done to secure his release.
He added: “It is further concerning that despite the UAE being clearly in opposition to the UK’s goals in the conflicts in Libya and Yemen, the foreign secretary thinks that the UAE are valued partners who share the same diplomatic interests.
“It seems that not only does the UK government not value British lives abroad, it is happy to ignore terrible human rights abuses by regimes like the UAE, in order to deflect from their own failings during a global pandemic.
“Perhaps the foreign secretary should push for arbitrarily detained British citizens to be released in the UAE and for a de-escalation in Libya and Yemen before choosing to thank the UAE so thoughtlessly.’”
Hedges was arrested in May 2018 and charged with spying on behalf of the British government. In November he was sentenced to life imprisonment. After a political outcry in the UK, prompted by his wife, he was pardoned by the UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The Foreign Office had advised Hedges’ family not to publicise his arrest, but instead rely on private diplomacy.
Hedges has two outstanding complaints with the Foreign Office – one to the parliamentary ombudsman on how the Foreign Office failed in his view to come to his defence until his case was publicised, and a second with the information commissioner on how the Foreign Office has heavily redacted all the documents he requested under the Freedom of Information Act concerning the Foreign Office’s internal response to his arrest.
The UAE is seen as one of the UK government’s most valued partners in the middle east, but its increasingly active foreign policy has conflicted with the British stance in Libya. There, UAE groups in suspected breach of a United Nations arms embargo, have been aiding General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army, which has been seeking violently to usurp the UN recognised government in Tripoli.
The UAE regards itself as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East.
The Foreign Office said in a statement: “The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally. We continue to encourage the UAE to uphold international human rights obligations and promote regional stability.
“FCO staff and ministers worked incredibly hard on Matthew’s case and were delighted he was able to return to the UK.”