Wednesday 4 December 2019

I was detained in the UAE. I learned that Britain puts trade before its citizens

I was held for seven months in horrific conditions. Like other imprisoned Britons, I received little Foreign Office support

One year ago today, I was released from the windowless room in an office block in the United Arab Emirates where I had been held for nearly seven months. My detention at the hands of the UAE security services was horrific. For the first six weeks, I was interrogated, denied access to a lawyer and denied appropriate consular assistance.

They kept me mainly in solitary confinement and fed me a cocktail of drugs that I then became dependent on. Even now, I’m still weaning myself off them as well as having to take medication to treat my resulting PTSD and anxiety. I endured repeated aggressive interrogations and was eventually given a life sentence after being forced to sign a false confession.

At the same time, and without me knowing, my story was making headlines all over the world, thanks to the efforts of my wife, who didn’t stop fighting for my freedom. One year later, I’m still trying to make sense of what happened. I don’t know if the UK learned anything; I certainly don’t think the UAE did.
 ‘My wife didn’t stop fighting for my freedom.’ Matthew Hedges with his wife Daniela Tejada, who campaigned for his release. Photograph: Daniela Tejada/PA
My case, unfortunately, is not unique. Many other visitors to the UAE have experienced first-hand the country’s incoherent and vindictive laws. Take Ali Issa Ahmad, another British citizen, who went to the UAE for a holiday and attended an Asian Cup football match while there earlier this year. After a game between Qatar and Iraq, he was seen sporting a Qatar football shirt: he was arrested, beaten and interrogated before being imprisoned for several days without food or water. Or Laleh Shahravesh, who was arrested and threatened with two years in jail for posting something on Facebook against her ex-husband’s new wife. The liberal, “tolerant” oasis, as the UAE promotes itself, is a sham and entirely subject to the whims of those who make and implement the law.

This pretend justice system, where laws change regularly or are so broadly written that they could be misunderstood in myriad ways, is even worse for its own citizens. And yet despite supposedly being protected by our passports as UK citizens, when you find yourself in solitary confinement, presented with completely false accusations, you realize your passport means very little. It took the British government two foreign secretaries, one of whom is now prime minister, and immense media pressure to get me out of detention. This is not a system that works.

My wife was told by Foreign Office staff that they had no duty of care towards me. Instead, like other high-profile cases such as those of Jamie Harron, Billy Barclay, and Ellie Holman – all British residents who were also imprisoned in the UAE – it was public campaigning efforts that set our release in motion. These campaigns put pressure on both the British and Emirati governments and threatened Dubai’s reputation as a tourist and business destination. Bad publicity, it seems, is a stronger force than any diplomatic or human rights enforcement mechanism.

The Foreign Office will always say it did exactly what it was supposed to do, that it followed the appropriate steps. Perhaps its staff might have done what its narrow rules dictate, but what happens when those rules fall far short of what’s required to protect citizens? Wanting to improve the system is something that should be admired, and I wish the Foreign Office would engage with me on this. The path it has chosen, however, is not to do anything at all. It has refused entirely to help me clear my name.

Despite submitting a freedom of information request for the Foreign Office to provide access to all the data relating to its handling of my case, it has refused to share the key details with me and my lawyers, so we can find out what actually happened. All I can go back to is the seven months when I fluctuated between being depressed, desperate and, in my worst moments, suicidal. At the time it certainly didn’t feel like enough was being done to get me released when I was in clear danger.

I worry that because the UAE is Britain’s largest export market in the Middle East, this commercial relationship takes priority over protecting citizens and upholding human rights. Earlier this year the UK government hosted a trade delegation from the UAE to expand these ties even further. So, one year on, we seem to have gone back to “business as usual” – with British universities such as Birmingham wanting to open campuses in Dubai, despite knowing full well the problems that academics face there and despite a significant outcry from university staff.

After my release, I met the then foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and he promised reform at the Foreign Office. He is no longer in charge, and there is no sign that anything has been done to improve procedures for assisting British citizens imprisoned either in the UAE or elsewhere. Too often, we have put commercial or political interests above human rights and the rights of our citizens. This has to end: this inaction empowers despots and degrades our national reputation, both at home and abroad.

• Matthew Hedges is a PhD candidate at Durham University. He was held in detention in the UAE from May to November 2018

(Soirce: The Guardian)

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