Matthew Hedges, a British academic and researcher, was arrested and accused of espionage in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in May 2018. There were allegations that Hedges was tortured while in detention. According to reports, he was subjected to solitary confinement, physical assault, prolonged interrogation and denial of basic rights during his imprisonment. The UAE authorities have denied the allegations of torture, stating that his case was handled in accordance with UAE law. After several months, Matthew Hedges was eventually pardoned and released in November 2018. The incident received international attention and raised concerns about human rights and due process in the UAE.
JURIST conducted an interview with Matthew Hedges to learn more about his treatment as a detainee in a foreign state and the response from the UK Government.
JURIST: Could you give me any insight into your treatment by the UAE or authorities and what happened?
Hedges: From the start, everything was deliberately or creatively manufactured and exploited. So, I was at the airport and I was told I had to go with the security officials, of which half of them were in plain-clothes uniforms, but the other ones were in full black with masks and guns. I don’t have much of a choice, they said that I was under arrest. But then subsequently, I also wasn’t under arrest, so I had to go with it. So, the idea is that you must stay calm, because if you don’t, that gives them complete carte blanche at that point. You can be as creative as you want, because their options are infinite.
I was held in such confinement for the entirety of my stay. I was threatened, my life was threatened, and I was threatened with rendition to an overseas black site in Yemen or Eritrea. There was a lot of physical intimidation. Now to be speaking about this isn’t something I haven’t really engaged that much with or talked about before. It’s hard to deal with this aspect of the torture. However, there was a lot of sexual overtones in terms of torture techniques and the abuse I suffered. This is all something I am yet to properly figure out and engage with. However, it still was very prominent, the torture tactics. I also knew that if I didn’t do or say what they wanted, I would not be safe.
Now in addition to this, I was then being forced to take medication that was both stimulants as well as medication such as anti-depressants, sleeping pills, you know, in combination with interrogations by myself for up to 15 hours on occasions. Sometimes they would stop me from sleeping; they put the air conditioning on heavily to freeze the room I was in. This, I’ve learned afterwards, is to do with stimulating your adrenal system.
I was incarcerated in a prolonged period of solitary confinement of seven months, of which it was only in the last month or so I was allowed to have reading materials, and it went from having nothing to them even putting a TV in my room. I can’t explain the craziness of the situation. It was so precarious to engage in mind-games, easing me in with normal comforts, juxtaposed with the genuine the genuine threat to my life, and also threats on my family’s lives, forced to take various medications and other more psychological tactics to break me down. I could hear other people being tortured, and I was lured into this way of feeling as though if I hadn’t done or said what I was doing, then it would have happened to me.
When people think of torture as well, they’ll primarily think physical torture. The physical torture in whatever scenario is beyond extreme, but physical torture isn’t the first point of call. But what they always end up coming back to is the psychological. So, I wasn’t able to go to the toilet without having to have my hands and my feet tied up and a bag over my head. Sometimes I’d have the toilet and shower with the doors open. You know, you were constantly being watched, without dignity, in a kind of Panopticon (to lift the idea out of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish).
It was actually a strange scenario where it was direct, persistent observation. In my room there were cameras. I must have a soldier watching me 24 hours a day. It was a very, very weird, intense environment to be in.
JURIST: What was the UK government’s response initially, such as the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi or the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)?
Hedges: Did you want to hear a comprehensive picture? Or would you want to hear my perception of it?
So, my first meeting with someone from the British Embassy was after six weeks. So, the first meeting was after six weeks at the jail, and I was told I couldn’t see or do anything until I’d signed a confession statement, agreeing to be a spy. In that first meeting, I was told beforehand, I’m not allowed to say anything, and I’m not allowed to talk about anything. If I did, I would get taken away, and I wouldn’t be able to see anyone again. I had a lot of threats before, even meeting a UK Official about what I could and could not do.
Now in this first meeting, not only is that then held at the state security prosecutor’s office, this has been from the front office’s side. This first meeting is happening in a country where UK officials know they practice torture. Firstly, that was held by the State Security, who are the equivalent of the KGB, so it is the exact same type of organisation we’re dealing with.
Alarm bells should not just be going off that I hadn’t met with any officials even through I’ve then been incarcerated for six weeks. Now, in this first meeting I was told that I wasn’t allowed to talk about my case. I wasn’t allowed to talk about my condition In that very short time. Otherwise, I would get taken away if I overstepped the mark. So, this first meeting lasted less than five minutes. There was the State Security prosecutor himself. There are armed guards in the room.
When the embassy official asked me a last question, he said, “ Have you been tortured?” – the authorities there went ballistic, grabbing him, and also going around grabbing me to get me out of the room. So I just say “No, I haven’t been PHYSICALLY tortured.”
The next meeting I had was after another month or two, and then afterwards, it was later. Now when I was on bail, I went to the embassy, and I was speaking to some of the consular staff who had worked in amnesty before, but this woman turned around and asked me why I had confessed to the interrogators. And that made me go ballistic, and one of the things that haunts me in terms of survivor’s guilt, imposter syndrome. To then have the head of mission saying, “Why did you do this?” You’re then making it seem as though it’s all my fault. So UK support wasn’t great at that time. I wasn’t allowed to say anything. There was no privacy, no nothing.
JURIST: This week, you received some sort of apology from the FCDO after a watchdog found that they ignored signs of UAE torture, and they explained that they were commencing review into guidance of torture and cases of abuse of British nationals overseas. What would you like to see from this review, from your perspective? As they as they say, in their words, they failed. What would you like to see?
Hedges: Fundamentally a true, genuine open examination, not just simply a boxing exercise, and to go and engage a whole range of survivors who have gone through these have gone through similar scenarios. And actually, learn lessons, accept and acknowledge what’s happened. So, if there have been failings, if there are these different issues, or for example, in my understanding, the most absolute principle issue and point of contention is the first 12/24/48 hours, these are the most critical timescales for detainees. They don’t know what’s going on. They’re the ones in isolation. They’re the ones having to deal with us. And they’re the ones that need the help. Now, the issue comes there is no legal counsellor. So, there’s a problem. FCDO saying they acknowledge what else can they do? Apart from making those visits, extended looking to the broader set of responsibilities that the FCDO had for British nationals, which includes … [issuing] travel safety … guidance, it doesn’t talk about anything else. It’s all just about physical safety. And that I think that’s something which would help because that, that impacts a lot of people. And that would then start to direct people to actually think about the responsibility may have.
JURIST: The last question I’ve got is that obviously now you’ve got a criminal record for espionage on behalf of the British government. I know you lodged a claim against the UAE in 2018 for torture. What would you like to see done about that?
Hedges: So, when I’ve said in interviews, the responsibility is on me to go and clear my record to get justice to get accountability. And not just for the same my legal record, because to be honest, I’m also not unless the government really pushed. It’s heavily unlikely or heavily, highly unlikely that the UAE government won’t return it. So it’s been about realistically getting trying to find some other measure of justice for myself. So, if that’s the case, when in the apology letter,* and in the ombudsman, they all they talk about the injustice that I suffered, which in government language is actually extremely good? Right for the for the government’s come out and say that. So, I have that … I understand the lack of focus and priority, but from the government side, because it’s why the guys treat these hours. Why? Why would we, you know, push ourselves which, you know, they’re not doing people in current jeopardy. Why would they go and do it for someone you know, otherwise? Which you know, it is what it is. It doesn’t mean it’s right. But in terms of their priorities, for me individually, it’s in the battle I have to fight, but what the government could do is use stronger language in statements if they’re not going to go and push for legal sports and everything else to just find a way to end it, which they won’t do of course then okay, fine. When I didn’t, I didn’t cover this thing with them for for my compensation, but actually, if they’re not gonna help me with the legal at least then help cover some of my medical costs, which are going to be thousands and thousands and thousands for the foreseeable future. And you can do that without having the responsibility of it. But at least then the country’s in something. And that’s the thing, which is a bit like I just want to turn around and wash the hands.
*In the apology letter the Permanent Secretary to the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office said: “At the end of the day, the role of the government is to protect its citizens and this was a profound failure. The impact will run deep for Mr Hedges and he will have to live with that for the rest of his life. This must not happen again to anyone else. We have asked the FCDO to make sure it will fully use all its powers to protect British citizens abroad, and ensure that they are there precisely when they are most needed.”