A British academic who endured solitary confinement in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has told Sky News he is concerned about a British football fan detained in the Gulf State.
Matthew Hedges was speaking out more than two and a half weeks after Ali Issa Ahmad, 26, was arrested while on holiday in the country from his home in Wolverhampton.
“I am [concerned] because it shows there is a manipulation of the law to suit political means, to make the point and say ‘we don’t like this type of behaviour so we are going to do as we will’,” Mr Hedges, 31, said.
Mr Ahmad, a dual British-Sudanese national, 26, was arrested in Sharjah emirate on 22 January, reportedly for wearing a Qatar shirt to a football match – considered an offence in the UAE.
The Gulf state denies this was the case.
Its embassy in London says he turned up at a police station falsely claiming to have been beaten up for wearing the shirt when actually he inflicted the injuries on himself
It says he has admitted to making false statements and wasting police time.
It is understood that Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, is closely following Mr Ahmad’s case.
Mr Hedges, however, says he has little faith in the UAE’s justice system.
It is a view shared by his Colombian wife, Daniela Tejeda, 27, who fought a hugely successful public campaign to help secure her husband’s release.
“A confession should not be the sole determinant to a case being opened let alone to someone being sentenced,” she said, sitting with Mr Hedges on a park bench in London.
“We don’t know what conditions he (Mr Ahmad) is being kept in or what he is being told in order to confess so unless there is hard evidence there is absolutely no reason why he should be held.”
Mr Hedges, who is working on his PhD at Durham University, says he was forced while detained in the UAE to confess falsely to being an MI6 officer or face torture.
His ordeal only ended in November when he was pardoned after diplomatic pressure from the foreign secretary.
But Mr Hedges and his wife want to know if a desire to keep good relations with the UAE stopped Britain from acting faster to help him.
They would like the foreign office to conduct an internal review in its handling of the case.
“The question I would ask is: Are there any other vested interests here which may have slowed this process down or deliberately inhibited it?” he asked.
Mr Hedges continued: “This is something that we are trying to look into more. We have requested an FOI [freedom of information request] for information regarding my case.”
He thinks the UK may have had to do a similar kind of diplomatic balancing act with him and the UAE as it did when handling its close relationship with Saudi Arabia at the same time as responding to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The idea of the UAE or wider Gulf influence in the UK decision making structure I think is very unhealthy,” Mr Hedges said.
“We have a certain set of values and standards we like to try and live by and we should continue to do this without interruption.”
A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman highlighted the “extensive support” staff provided in Mr Hedges’s case, including from Mr Hunt.
Mr Hedges says he is working with the government to get his spy conviction quashed as it taints his reputation and makes it difficult to travel.
“It sounds good if you are going to go down the pub or something but the reality is a lot stronger, has quite a harsh meaning,” he said.
“It means part of my integrity is always questioned, it means my academic research will always be questioned.”
The conviction of an innocent man for spying is also a sign that anyone could encounter the same problem should they travel to the UAE, he added.
As for foreign travel, much of the world is now out of bounds.
“You have to say ‘what type of countries would be very interested in a convicted British spy’?
“Middle East, North Africa, Russia and former Soviet states, China – any authoritarian state in the world that can act with impunity, that acts without a legal justice and that acts arbitrarily.
“It is something we have to take even more seriously now with our own personal safety.”