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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

British Foreign Office changes tone after spy released by UAE

Consular visits by British officials took place regularly while Matthew Hedges was going through UAE legal process

A Downing Street spokesman in UK said Prime Minister Theresa May has welcomed news of Mr Hedges' release. EPA
A Downing Street spokesman in UK said Prime Minister Theresa May has welcomed news of Mr Hedges' release. EPA

Britain has a long-standing policy of neither confirming or denying allegations surrounding the intelligence services. That did not change in the curious case of Matthew Hedges, after the UAE government pardoned him from a life sentence on spying charges.

When Sheikh Khalifa, the President, issued the pardon on Monday, video evidence was shared where a relaxed Hedges confessed to being a British agent while posing as a PhD student.

However, the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and other officials repeatedly issued a two-fold message even as the case of Mr Hedges came to the UAE courts. First that the government could not substantiate the accusation – claiming there was “no foundation” in the allegations – and second that the UAE should take account of the long-standing friendship between the two nations in seeking a resolution of the matter.

In welcoming Mr Hedges pardon, Mr Hunt again came as close as he publicly could to refuting the suggestions that the PhD student worked for the Secret Intelligence Service or MI6.

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Read more:

Update: Pardoned British spy Matthew Hedges lands at London's Heathrow airport

The curious case of Matthew Hedges

British spy Matthew Hedges pardoned by UAE government

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“We’ve seen no evidence to support these accusations against Matthew Hedges, but today what we want to do is to thank them for the fact that they have reflected on the strong representations that we’ve made,” he said.

“We’ve made it very clear for a number of months now that we see no basis in these allegations, they’ve reflected on that, they’ve taken the action that they can, which means that Matthew Hedges is going to be reunited with his family.”

Officials in the UK foreign office (FCO) have failed to clarify, despite requests from The National, when Mr Hedges was first visited by consular staff after his arrest on May 5 at Dubai airport.

Baroness Goldie, a junior minister attached to the FCO, told the British parliament that British officials had met with Hedges a number of times while he was in UAE custody. “Consular staff have met Matthew on six occasions, three before his recent bail and three while he was on bail,” she said. It is believed that the first visit took place in mid-June, a second at the end of August and once again in September.

Mr Hunt himself said there was close consular contacts between Mr Hedges and diplomats based in the UAE mission. “Our consular officials have been in close contact with Matthew Hedges and his family. We will continue to do everything possible to support him,” he said on Wednesday.

There have been no suggestions from British officials that Mr Hedges was subjected to any unusual treatment while in the UAE, either before or after he was granted bail. Indeed, Mr Hunt and other cabinet ministers suggest that both sides were working as allies to resolve the issue.

It is not thought that the incident will have long-term implications for that close alliance and the steady stream of exchanges between the two nations.

Mr Hunt spoke on Thursday of a positive mood in his phone conversation with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressing the spirit of co-operation between the two sides to resolve the matter. “I believe and trust he's working hard to resolve the situation ASAP. We've a close partnership with the UAE which will help us take things forward

Talk of serious repercussions in the relationship, as an instant response to the life sentence handed down last week, has been replaced by Mr Hunt thanking the UAE for acting on British representations.

A Downing Street spokesman said Prime Minister Theresa May’s welcomed news of the release.

Durham University said Mr Hedge’s methodologies and research focus had been approved by its panels as part of his doctoral candidacy.