A British academic convicted of spying in the United Arab Emirates still fears he will have to serve a life sentence while his health deteriorates in jail, his wife has said after a brief conversation with him.
Diplomatic efforts to free PhD student Matthew Hedges are being led by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt amid an outcry after the 31-year-old was jailed earlier this week.
The Durham University researcher’s wife, Daniela Tejada, said she has won assurances from Mr Hunt that the Government is “now standing up for” her husband, after she claimed it had initially put foreign relations above his liberty.
I think he’s just absolutely terrified at the idea of having to spend the rest of his life behind bars for an offence he hasn’t committed.Daniela Tejada
But after a five-minute phone call with him on Thursday night, she said Mr Hedges remains in fear that he will have to serve the entirety of his sentence.
“He is not well. He mentioned that his panic attacks have become worse than they were before. However, he did say that he has access to a doctor,” she told the BBC on Friday morning.
“I wasn’t allowed to know where he is, so still don’t know anything about his whereabouts, and I think he’s just absolutely terrified at the idea of having to spend the rest of his life behind bars for an offence he hasn’t committed.”
With the UAE ambassador in London expected to make a statement on the case, there are hopes the Gulf state will show some leniency after an official said the nation wants to find an “amicable solution”.
However the official – Abdulla Al Naqbi, the head of the foreign ministry’s legal department – added that “compelling and powerful evidence” had proved espionage, including computer analysis and an alleged confession.
Ms Tejada has stressed her husband’s innocence and said the Middle East expert, who was finishing his thesis, was the victim of a “misunderstanding” while researching.
Mr Hunt said he has seen “absolutely no evidence” to support claims Mr Hedges was spying when he visited Dubai earlier this year, and he threatened “serious diplomatic consequences” if he is not freed.
The Cabinet minister said on Thursday night that he had had a “constructive conversation” with his UAE counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed.
But this came after he had previously voiced surprise at the life sentence handed to Mr Hedges on Wednesday, which came despite his discussions with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed a little over a week earlier.
Mr Hedges, originally from Exeter, was arrested at Dubai Airport as he tried to leave the country on May 5.
Professor Stuart Corbridge, vice-chancellor of Durham University, said there is “no reason to believe that Matt was conducting anything other than legitimate academic research”.
Mr Hedges was given 30 days to challenge the court ruling, and Ms Tejada has launched a petition on Change.org which has gathered more than 160,000 signatures.