A British academic was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday in the United Arab Emirates on charges he was spying for the U.K. — a verdict that Britain described as shocking as it urged the Middle East country to reconsider its decision.
Matthew Hedges, a 31-year-old PhD student in Middle Eastern Studies at Durham University, was arrested at Dubai Airport on May 5 and detained. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt had travelled to the UAE to discuss the case with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed.
"Today's verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances," Hunt said in a statement which underscored his surprise at the decision.
Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers: "We are deeply disappointed and concerned at today's verdict. ... We are raising it with the Emirati authorities at the highest level."
Britain had until now been reticent over the case, citing ongoing legal proceedings. Officials have declined to comment on intelligence matters, in keeping with government policy.
Hedges' wife Daniela Tejada, who was in court, said she was in "complete shock."
"Matthew is innocent," she said. "The Foreign Office know this and have made it clear to the UAE authorities that Matthew is not a spy for them."
Urging the British government to make a stand for him, she added: "I am very scared for Matt. I don't know where they are taking him or what will happen now. Our nightmare has gotten even worse."
Hunt said the case would have consequences for bilateral relations.
"I have repeatedly made clear that the handling of this case by the UAE authorities will have repercussions for the relationship between our two countries, which has to be built on trust," Hunt said. "I regret the fact that we have reached this position and I urge the UAE to reconsider."
Hunt says consular officials have been in close contact with the academic's family and the case.