SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: May 05, 2018

Attack Types: Imprisonment | Prosecution | Travel Restrictions

Institution(s):Durham University

Region & Country:Western Asia | United Arab Emirates

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 5, 2018, UAE authorities reportedly detained Matthew Hedges, a PhD candidate at Durham University, in apparent retaliation for his academic work. Hedges has since been held in solitary confinement on undisclosed charges.

Hedges, who has previously lived and worked in the UAE, traveled to Dubai in April 2018 to conduct research for his dissertation on Emirati foreign and security policies since the Arab Spring, a protest movement in the Middle East that began in 2010. During this trip, Hedges reportedly conducted interviews with unknown individuals over two weeks.

On May 5, authorities detained Hedges at the Dubai International Airport as he was preparing to leave the country. Hedges was apparently reported to authorities for trying to obtain “classified information” and “asking sensitive questions about some sensitive departments.” Authorities took him to an undisclosed location in Abu Dhabi and held him incommunicado for several weeks. Hedges was later permitted one phone call with his mother. In the five months since he has been detained, he received two visits from British officials, one with his wife, and one with other family.

On October 10, Hedges attended his first hearing at the UAE state security court and, for the first time since being detained, was allowed access to legal counsel. Charges were not disclosed to Hedges and his case was adjourned until a second hearing scheduled for October 24.

Hedges’ wife, Daniela Tejada, reported that during her visit in July he appeared to be suffering from depression and panic attacks. Tejada said that he was shaking, appeared to be on medication, and “[Hedges] seemed to be very cautious about what he said and what he didn’t say.” Hedges’ family claims he was denied access to a shower for a month and was forced to sleep on the floor for the first three months of his detention.

For months, Hedges’ family used a strategy of quiet diplomacy to secure his release. However, since the October 10 court hearing, his family has gone public about Hedges’ detention. In response to the incident, Durham University has put a temporary ban on student research trips to the UAE for all non-UAE citizens.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the arbitrary detention and prosecution of, and restriction on travel by, a scholar in apparent retaliation for his non-violent exercise of the right to academic freedom, conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from interfering with academic activity, so long as it is exercised peacefully and responsibly, and to comply with the internationally recognized standards of academic freedom and due process. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, arbitrary imprisonment and prosecution undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.

UPDATE: On November 21, 2018, an Emirati court convicted and sentenced Mr. Hedges to life in prison on a charge of “spying on the UAE and providing sensitive security and intelligence information to third parties.” The court has given Mr. Hedges thirty days to appeal the hearing. If the conviction and sentencing are upheld, Mr. Hedges, as a non-Emirati citizen, is expected to serve a maximum of 25 years in prison, after which he would be deported and fined the costs of the trial.

UPDATE: On November 26, 2018, after growing pressure from British officials, UAE state authorities pardoned and released Mr. Hedges from prison. He has since returned to the United Kingdom.

UPDATE: On January 25, 2019, in an article published in The Atlantic, Hedges reported that he was subjected to daily interrogations, threats, and forced drugging while imprisoned.