Today’s pardon must be an enormous relief for Matthew Hedges and his family, but what are we to make of the UAE’s jailing of the Durham University student?
Does the affair tell us anything we didn’t already know about this “friend and ally” of the United Kingdom?
In a way, no. For the past seven-plus years, the Emirati authorities have been arresting and jailing local human rights defenders, political critics, journalists and even judges. Like Mr Hedges, these have been subjected to sudden arrest, months of solitary confinement - or completely incommunicado detention - and then jailed after sham trial proceedings of a patently unfair nature.
It’s true that doing this to a British national visiting the country for his PhD research was something slightly different. But, though Hedges’ jailing inevitably involved diplomatic complications for Abu Dhabi, it also represented business as usual for a government increasingly intolerant of anyone asking questions (academic or political) about the country’s security apparatus or its governance.
Take the case of Ahmed Mansoor. This May, Mansoor, an award-winning Emirati human rights activist, was jailed for ten years by the state security division of a federal court in Abu Dhabi. His supposed “crime” was to have “publish[ed] false information to damage [the] UAE’s reputation abroad” and “portray the UAE as a lawless land”.
In reality, Mansoor had only posted comments in support of other jailed human rights activist, including a man called Osama al-Najjar. In this pernicious game of persecution by association, Al-Najjar had himself been jailed in 2014 for tweeting remarks about his own jailed father to the country’s interior minister.
And so it continues. With the Emirati authorities picking off critics and anyone who tries to stand up for them.
Since the Arab Spring, the UAE has been trying to crush all opposition, however fragile or tentative. Meanwhile, the UAE is working hand in glove with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, its forces pursuing a reckless ground operation in the siege of Hodeidah while using rogue Yemeni security forces to operate a network of secret jails where torture is rife.
Last week Jeremy Hunt said he was “shocked and disappointed” by the UAE’s jailing of Mathew Hedges. After all, the UAE is considered a “friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom”.
But why this sudden sense of shock? Has the Foreign Secretary really failed to notice what the UK’s “friend” in the Gulf has been doing to its human rights defenders? Or what its military have been doing in Yemen? It apparently took the jailing of a British national for the scales to fall from Mr Hunt’s eyes. And even here it seems to have required some pointed criticisms of the Foreign Office by Mr Hedges’ wife Daniela to sting the Foreign Secretary into action.
So yes, we welcome the Foreign Secretary intervention in this case. But if the UK is only going to speak out about human rights when its own nationals are affected, then it will be betraying thousands of brave human rights defenders around the globe. In the frightening new world order of Trump, Duterte, Erdoğan, Bolsonaro, Bin Salman and indeed the UAE’s Khalifa Al Nayhan, ordinary people trying to stand up for human rights, for free speech and other civil liberties, are under very real attack.
So Matthew Hedges’ case is a stark reminder of what’s at stake. Academic freedom, basic freedom. Yes, on this occasion Mr Hunt has been able to convince Sheikh Khalifa to pardon Mr Hedges. And yes, this is a tremendous relief for Hedges and his family (albeit tinged with unhappiness over his serious ill-treatment).
But the UK mustn’t return to business as usual with the wealthy countries of the Gulf.
We can’t be uncritical “friends” with countries who trample over human rights.
Allan Hogarth is Head of Policy and Government Affairs at Amnesty International UK