A British academic pardoned from a life sentence in the United Arab Emirates has arrived back on UK soil this morning after being freed yesterday.
Matthew Hedges thanked everyone involved in ‘securing my release’ this morning as he landed at Heathrow Airport. He was welcomed by his wife, Daniela Tejada, and members of his family.
Mr Hedges praised his ‘brave and strong’ wife after she launched a campaign to get him home. This morning he said both he and his wife are ‘overjoyed and exhausted’.
‘I don’t know where to begin with thanking people for securing my release. I have not seen or read much of what has been written over the past few days but Dani tells me the support has been incredible. Thank you so much to the British Embassy and the FCO for their efforts in ensuring I arrived safely back home.’
Ms Tejada said today: ‘I am so happy to have my Matt home. Thank you once again for the overwhelming support we have received, especially from the Embassy in the UAE and the Foreign Office in ensuring that Matt was safely returned home. We are overjoyed and exhausted.
‘Thank you once again as well to the international community and the international media who were very supportive from the beginning.
Matthew Hedges elated wife, Daniela Tejada, 27, tweeted this picture of the couple with the words: ‘I’ve been brought back to life’
The British academic’s delighted wife celebrated the news on Twitter saying she had been ‘brought back to life’ by Mr Hedges’ release
‘I hope you can all understand that Matt and I, as well as his family, really need some time to process everything that we have been through.
‘No one should ever have to go through what he did and it will take him time to heal and recover. He is very overwhelmed. To say we are happy is an understatement.’
He was freed on Monday after a high-profile battle with the Gulf state ally, but officials persisted in calling him an MI6 spy – a claim denied by family and colleagues.
The Durham University PhD student, originally from Exeter, landed at about 6.40am, it was reported on Good Morning Britain.
His wife, Daniela Tejada, mounted a campaign to free the 31-year-old and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt personally discussed the case with UAE leaders.
Yesterday she said: ‘It’s the kind of thing no one prepares you for. We were just starting our lives and I’m so glad that opportunity has been given back to us.’
Matthew Hedges (pictured with his wife Daniela Tejada) has reportedly landed back in the UK at Heathrow Airport this morning
He was sentenced on Wednesday after being arrested at Dubai Airport as he tried to leave on May 5.
President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan approved the family’s appeal for clemency during a traditional tranche of pardons for the state’s national day.
Ms Tejada said news of the pardon brought her family’s ‘nightmare’ to an end, and Mr Hunt described it as ‘fantastic’.
At a news conference on Monday in Abu Dhabi, officials showed a video of Mr Hedges describing himself as a captain in MI6 during what appeared to be a court hearing.
However, MI6 – the foreign intelligence service – is not known to use military ranks.
An official told reporters in Abu Dhabi that Mr Hedges was ‘100 per cent a full-time secret service operative’ who was in the country ‘to steal the UAE’s sensitive security national secrets for his paymasters’.
He said the Briton’s pardon came in response to a letter from his family appealing for clemency and due to the historical close ties between the UK and UAE.
Matthew Hedges (pictured right) and his wife Daniela Tejada posing on their wedding day in Dartmoor
Mr Hedges was branded a spy by the United Arab Emirates, who announced that he would be pardoned yesterday
‘His highness has decided to include Mr Matthew Hedges among the 785 prisoners released,’ he said.
‘Mr Hedges will be permitted to leave the country once all the formalities are complete.’
The UK takes a ‘neither confirm nor deny’ approach to allegations of intelligence service membership, but Mr Hunt has previously said he has seen ‘absolutely no evidence’ to suggest Mr Hedges is a spy.
Following the pardon, Ms Tejada, from Bogota in Colombia, said: ‘The presidential pardon for Matt is the best news we could have received.
Jaber Al Lamki, executive director of media and strategic communication of national media announces the release of Matthew Hedges yesterday
‘Our six-plus months of nightmare are finally over and to say we are elated is an understatement.
‘That he is returning home to me and the rest of his family is much more than I was ever expecting to happen this week. I thank you all for your support.’
Ms Tejada credited media coverage, support from British diplomats, Mr Hunt, academics and members of the public across the world for helping her husband’s cause.
She continued to reject the accusation that he was a spy, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘In my heart I know that he isn’t.’
Mr Hedges’ release was confirmed after a family representative initially contradicted UAE officials who said he had been freed.
Mr Hunt said the UAE had made a ‘very important gesture’ in pardoning Mr Hedges but described it as a ‘bittersweet moment’ given that Briton Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains detained in Iran, also accused of spying.
He told Today: ‘In a way it’s a bittersweet moment as in Iran, another country in the region, we have Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an innocent woman who is still in prison for nearly three years now.
‘Indeed, there are other British citizens and other citizens from other countries also wrongly imprisoned in Iran also.
‘So, you know the wonderful news about Matthew is also making us remember there are other people who are in a terrible state right now and we must never forget them either.’
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt welcomed news that Matthew Hedges had been given a presidential pardon after he was imprisoned for spying
UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash said the pardon would allow the two countries to ‘return our focus to the underlying fundamental strength of the UAE-UK bilateral relationship’, the WAM Emirates news agency reported.
Dr Gargash said: ‘It was always a UAE hope that this matter would be resolved through the common channels of our longstanding partnership.
‘This was a straightforward matter that became unnecessarily complex despite the UAE’s best efforts.’
New bid to help Briton jailed in Iran
Matthew Hedges’ campaigning wife Daniela Tejada now hopes to help another Briton in a foreign jail, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 40, has been in an Iranian prison since being arrested in April 2016 as she and her daughter prepared to return to Britain.
Her husband Richard Ratcliffe and Miss Tejada have been in contact during the campaign she waged to secure Mr Hedges’s release.
Now Miss Tejada wants to work to help him get his wife back from Iran.
Mr Ratcliffe said last night: ‘Daniela has had a really strong and clear campaign that has done great things to bring her husband home.
‘I was very impressed with the clarity, honesty and strength she brought to the campaign. I welcome this offer.’
He added: ‘What’s really important is also the shared experience that you can’t explain to other people. It would be good for us to organise an event together in the future, but first she needs to catch up with her husband.
‘It’s such a great day for them, but also for us, because it’s the hope.’
Professor Stuart Corbridge, vice-chancellor of Durham University, said staff were ‘absolutely delighted’ to learn of the news.
‘It is paramount that he is now allowed to return home to Daniela and his family as quickly and safely as possible,’ he said.
Ms Tejada told Sky News she wanted to arrange a ‘winter barbecue’ for her husband, which had been postponed from Spring due to his detention.
As he prepared to fly back to the UK this morning, his elated wife, Daniela Tejada, 27, tweeted a picture of the couple with the words: ‘I’ve been brought back to life’.
Her husband was arrested on May 5 in Dubai on his way home from a two-week research trip for his PhD thesis into the security policies of the Gulf.
He was held in solitary confinement for five months before being jailed for life.
Miss Tejada insisted her husband is not a spy. She thanked the media for highlighting his case and said: ‘That he is returning home to me and the rest of his family is much more than I was ever expecting to happen this week.
‘It’s taken me by surprise and I’m just so happy and so relieved and really incredulous that it is happening finally. It has been an absolutely nightmarish seven months and I just can’t wait to have him back.
‘We are absolutely elated at the news. In my heart, I know what Matt is, he’s a PhD researcher. His colleagues know it, and his family know it and hundreds of academics round the world know it. The most important thing now is that we will have him back home.’
After Mr Hedges’ shock life sentence last week, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt demanded the UAE release him or face ‘serious consequences’. Britain has strong defence and trade ties with the Gulf state and hundreds of thousands of UK tourists holiday in Dubai every year.
Yesterday the UAE’s rulers announced that a request for clemency by Mr Hedges’ family had been ‘graciously granted’.
But government spokesman Jaber al-Lamki stressed he was not going home an innocent man, declaring: ‘Mr Hedges has been found guilty of espionage. He was here to steal the UAE’s sensitive national security secrets for his paymasters.’
To back up his point, he showed a ten-minute film of video clips of Mr Hedges ‘confessing’ his MI6 mission. The first showed a judge in a courtroom asking Hedges his rank and he answers: ‘It is Captain.’ Although MI6 is Britain’s overseas spying operation, its intelligence officers do not hold military ranks.
The clip moved to what appeared to be an investigation room and Mr Hedges wearing a short-sleeved blue shirt, and he said: ‘I have an active field role…’ In another clip, he says he was gathering information not from the ‘top top top’ leadership of the UAE, but from officials.
‘I approached them as Matthew Hedges the PhD student – and when I got the information it becomes MI6,’ he says, snapping his fingers. When asked about the information he gathered, he said: ‘What new technologies are they looking into, what do they see as a security threat – and then there is the military of course.’ When the investigators asked if anyone knows about him or his job, he said: ‘No…no one else knows. No one but you guys.’
The video clips were grainy and garbled, and jumped around to different locations suggesting they were edited together without any context or continuity.
The short clip about him being an MI6 ‘captain’ was set in a courtroom, suggesting it was filmed recently and could even have been the final ‘price’ Mr Hedges had to pay for being set free.
Independent scrutiny is impossible because journalists at the hastily-convened Press conference were not allowed to film the video footage and the government has not released it.
Last night a friend of Mr Hedges and his wife branded the video confession ‘an embarrassment’ to the UAE, saying: ‘They are just trying to save face with their own people.
‘They are laughable, the accusations they have given. They have a video, but we all know the coercion that has gone into it. It wouldn’t stand up in any court. It’s completely ridiculous.’
But the Emirati spokesman claimed: ‘The information Mr Hedges collected went far beyond standard academic practice. In fact, Mr Hedges took advantage of the openness granted to academic researchers in this country.
‘During the investigation, it emerged that Mr Hedges has been using two different identities to gather information from his targets.
In one he was Matthew Hedges the PhD researcher, in another one he was Matthew Hedges the businessman. He was part time PhD researcher and part time businessman – but he was 100 per cent a secret service operative.’
The state-run WAM news agency alleged Mr Hedges sought information for British intelligence on weapons systems, economic data, details about the UAE’s war in Yemen and ‘sensitive information on key government figures, including members of the UAE ruling families and their networks’.
The Emiratis have denied a claim that Mr Hedges was forced to sign confessions in Arabic after weeks of brutal interrogation without a lawyer or access to consular assistance from the British embassy.
Yesterday Mr Hunt said Britain did ‘not agree’ with the UAE’s insistence that Mr Hedges is a spy. He said: ‘We’ve seen no evidence to support these accusations.’