Matthew Hedges’ devoted wife could hardly bear the terror in his voice as he sobbed down a crackly phone line.
It was the first time she had spoken to the young academic – her husband of barely two years – since he was marched from a court to start a life sentence in a hellhole Arab prison.
His crime? Being a British spy. Posing as a student to ‘spy for and on behalf of a foreign state’ and ‘jeopardising the military, economic and political security of the United Arab Emirates.’
Crimes he vehemently denies, and crimes everyone who knows Mr Hedges agrees would be laughable if they weren’t so deadly serious.
‘There is no way he is a spy,’ says his wife, Daniela Tejada. ‘He would be hopeless at it.’
Standing by her man: Daniela Tejada, wife of jailed British PhD student Matthew Hedges
She was in court for the five-minute hearing, during which her ‘good-natured’ husband had stood, shaking with fear, surrounded by armed guards. There were no hugs goodbye, no final words. She had to wait another 24 hours to talk to him. When they were connected, he began with an upbeat: ‘Hello my love,’ but soon cracked.
‘He was absolutely terrified of the idea of spending his whole life behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit,’ Miss Tejada said, speaking exclusively to the Mail yesterday.
‘I could hear the terror in his voice. His voice was breaking and he was just crying.’ The 31-year-old PhD student, found guilty of being an MI6 spy at a hearing in a secretive Abu Dhabi court on Wednesday, was in failing health and suffering panic attacks, she said, adding: ‘I tried to reassure him.
‘I told him this thing had got a lot bigger than any of us could ever expect.’
‘We are each other’s rock’: Daniela Tejada said ‘I will fight and fight and fight till he comes home’
For Mr Hedges, who spent six months in solitary confinement and signed a confession under duress, his wife’s words are all he can cling to.
Miss Tejada – who says she and her husband are ‘each other’s rock’ – vowed: ‘He won’t live life behind bars, because I’m not going to allow it. I will fight and fight and fight till he comes home.’
Miss Tejada, who is only 27, has certainly been doing that, and her fierce determination and measured words – in public at least – are almost certainly her husband’s best hope of seeing an end to his nightmare.
Almost immediately after leaving the Abu Dhabi courtroom, she penned a letter to the Emirati rulers begging for clemency.
She said: ‘It was from the whole family. We gave testament to Matt’s good character and explained how his family need him home.
‘I am just hopeful that the UAE rulers will see it in their hearts to grant Matt clemency. This is an innocent man’s life, and also it is my life – and I couldn’t be more innocent.
‘I just want to be able to dream about our future.
‘People always ask if my life is on hold while Matt’s in prison, and the answer is always no, because he is my life – and that goes for the good times as much as the bad times.
‘I won’t rest until he is back. Matt deserves it.’
Mr Hedges, a Durham University student, was arrested on May 5 at the end of a two-week trip to interview sources for his PhD thesis into military and security policies in the United Arab Emirates.
UAE looks at plea for clemency
The United Arab Emirates was last night considering an appeal for presidential clemency from Matthew Hedges’ family.
It also happens that Thursday is UAE National Day – when pardons are granted.
Clemency may involve some admission of guilt from Mr Hedges – but this may be seen as being a price worth paying.
UAE ambassador Sulaiman Hamid Almazroui said: ‘We have an extremely close partnership with the UK. Because of the strength of that relationship we are hopeful that an amicable solution can be reached.’
Mr Hedges insists he was conducting research for his PhD thesis, but prosecutors said he confessed to spying charges.
An expert on the region said the research did not threaten the UAE. Chris Davidson, a former reader in Middle East politics and a fellow at Durham University, who helped to supervise Mr Hedges’ research, said the facts in it were in the public domain. He added: ‘The overall flavour was sympathetic to the UAE, absolutely of no use to an intelligence agency. There was nothing classified.’
Someone in the authoritarian regime clearly took exception to his academic work, and he was arrested as he tried to leave Dubai airport.
He was interrogated for six weeks, held in a wretched cell without a mattress, and not allowed access to a lawyer for more than five months. His wife was allowed to visit him only once, and found him in a trembling state of terror and paranoia.
Week after week she badgered the Foreign Office to intervene, but got nowhere until she went public last month. She said she had to fight for him because no one else had.
However, she is modest about her role, saying only: ‘I don’t think he needs to know what I did, it’s just that I love him, I want him back – he is my husband.
‘We have been married less than two years. It wasn’t even about our marriage vows, I would have done it anyway, but I promised to love and support him “for better or worse”, and, well, this has been at the worst end of the spectrum.’
Locked up for five months alone, without books, newspapers, TV or radio, and subjected to brutal interrogations, Mr Hedges became so traumatised he resorted to making himself vomit every day, as a form of control. Yet, startlingly, Miss Tejada said her husband – who grew up in the UAE and knows the country well – refused to resent the second home he loves and admires so much for what it was doing to him.
She said: ‘Part of my admiration for him is that he’s so good natured, and despite the mistreatment he’s been subjected to, he still doesn’t hold any resentment to the UAE.
‘He is just actually sad that he will now have such horrible memories to associate with it.’
She pauses and begins to well up with tears, adding: ‘When I think about Matt and begin to cry, I always just look up to the ceiling and take a deep breath, and then I can carry on.
Colombian-born Miss Tejada, a PR executive, met Mr Hedges at Exeter University eight years ago when she still a teenager.
Miss Tejada said: ‘Part of my admiration for him is that he’s so good natured, and despite the mistreatment he’s been subjected to, he still doesn’t hold any resentment to the UAE’ (both pictured on holiday in Thailand)
She was a 19-year-old undergraduate from Bogota and he was a 23-year-old finishing his masters in Middle East international relations.
‘It wasn’t really love at first sight,’ she confesses. ‘We met in the summer. When we met I actually didn’t think much of him. It took a couple of dates before I fell for him.
‘But he is probably the most noble man I have ever met.
‘He is incredibly good-natured, very smart and a really nice guy.
‘He has a lot of ambition and drive, and I really respect that he is a man of principle and that’s something we share. He’s just a man of conviction.’
Mr Hedges was born in Croydon, south London, and grew up with his mother and stepfather, who had a daughter when he was nine.
The family lived in Dubai for many of his teenage years and, after studying at Exeter, he returned to work there.
Colombian-born Miss Tejada, a PR executive, met Mr Hedges at Exeter University eight years ago when she still a teenager
Miss Tejada said: ‘We dated for a month. Then he went back to the UAE, and we had a long-distance relationship for three years. Then I had to decide what to do, whether to go back to Colombia or what. And he said, “Why don’t you come to the UAE?” – and so I did.’
The couple married in January 2017 on Dartmoor in Devon. ‘It was a winter wedding,’ she recalls. ‘We met in Exeter and we both love Dartmoor. It was the perfect place. It wasn’t very big, there were just 15 people, it was very intimate.
‘Ours is a relationship of commitment built on respect.
‘I have absolute trust in him, and I would never question the character of his work. Over the past few years, I have been his editor and research assistant, so I know almost every detail about his research work.’
But was he naïve to think the notoriously draconian Emirati regime – which routinely locks up drunken British expats – would not mind him investigating its secret services for his thesis?
She said: ‘A lot of people on social media called him an idiot. He’s not an idiot. He knows exactly his field of research, and knows the country, and would not have done anything to offend his hosts.
The couple married in January 2017 on Dartmoor in Devon. ‘It was a winter wedding,’ Miss Tejada recalls. ‘We met in Exeter and we both love Dartmoor. It was the perfect place. It wasn’t very big, there were just 15 people, it was very intimate’
‘It has been a terrible mistake. But nobody should have their security threatened just for producing academic work.’
After returning to the UK on Thursday, Miss Tejada, met Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and later said she had been assured that British officials were doing ‘everything in their power’ to bring her husband home.
However, a frank statement by Abdulla Al Naqbi, the head of the UAE’s department of legal affairs at the ministry of foreign affairs and international co-operation, set out the country’s position.
Mr Al Naqbi said: ‘The UAE respects the rule of law and is committed to upholding the highest judicial standards.
‘Like all countries with an independent judiciary, it is vital that the government does not attempt to interfere in court cases.’
Two weeks before his sentencing, Mr Hedges was allowed out on bail and his wife was able to fly out to Dubai to stay with him, and help rebuild his strength.
Even after this week’s shocking setback, she still clings on to thoughts of his homecoming.
Miss Tejada said: ‘Matt is a strong man, but is very weakened by this experience and he will need a lot of support.
‘I feel like we are each other’s rock. I’m just prepared to look after him and protect him.’
And what is she planning for a homecoming treat? ‘We love cooking,’ she said.
‘It’s funny you ask, because on the weekend he was due to arrive home, back in May, we were planning to have a barbecue.
‘It was a practice BBQ for the next weekend, which was the royal wedding of Harry and Meghan. He was really looking forward to it.
‘So last week I asked him what he was looking forward to when he finally came back, and he said, “Having that barbecue!”.
‘We don’t care if it’s cold. We love winter barbecues.
‘He will also need a lot of sleeping and trying to recover from these months that have been hell on Earth.’