Matthew Hedges: universities fail to protect staff working abroad

Researcher held in UAE for five months suggests commercial relationships may trump concern for researchers’ well-being

October 3, 2019
Matthew Hedges
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Universities may be failing to properly assess the risks of academics visiting repressive regimes because of their close relationships with these countries, according to a British researcher who was sentenced to life in prison on spying charges in the United Arab Emirates.

Matthew Hedges, a PhD student specialising in Middle Eastern politics at Durham University, told Times Higher Education that there was a “clinical lack of organisation” or support regarding the preparation of academics conducting research in dangerous places, adding that universities had not changed their approach since he was detained in the UAE in May last year.   

“There should be a reaction. Things should be happening in response to this,” he said. “I went to a Russell Group meeting with the vice-chancellors from all those universities and I had the impression that they were not taking this issue seriously.”

Mr Hedges added that Durham managers had still not completed an internal investigation into his own case “while they continue to send academics out abroad”.

“It’s not just upsetting, it’s actually worrying, because they shouldn’t need to be prompted,” he said.

Mr Hedges travelled to the UAE last year to interview contacts about Middle Eastern foreign policy and security issues. He was held in solitary confinement for almost seven months and given a life sentence after being found guilty of “spying for or on behalf of” the UK government, before eventually being pardoned in November following international media coverage of his situation.

He is one of several academics who have been detained while conducting research abroad in recent years. Last month, it emerged that Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne, has been held for a year in Iran on allegations of espionage. Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student at the University of Cambridge, was abducted and murdered in Egypt in 2016 while researching the country’s independent trade unions.

Mr Hedges said that universities judged the “physical risks” associated with scholars visiting foreign countries but there tended to be no “detailed assessment of the wider associated risks”, such as legal restrictions and the presence or powers of an embassy.

“The positivist view is they don’t want to have the responsibility...but the pessimistic view is it is because of their relationships with some of those states,” he said, adding that universities are “engaging with China [and] Middle Eastern states” and other countries in order to find “new sources of partnerships” and funding.

Mr Hedges claimed that these conflicting motivations were at play at Durham in response to his own case.

“Why did it take so long for them to come out in my defence?…I know at Durham my supervisor and the head of my department had to fight with the corporate side of the university. And I think when you have that split of responsibilities there are different interests at play. The academic side would be much more supportive than the corporate side, who may have been more willing to forgo any further support or exposure...they certainly could have done more.”

Mr Hedges added that universities should be labelling some countries “off limits” to academics, with the help of guidance from governments.

“Looking at the world right now, just off the top of my head...Turkey, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia would be completely off limits,” he said, adding that the subsequent lack of research on these countries had to be accepted as “the sad truth”.  

Stuart Corbridge, Durham’s vice-chancellor, said that following Mr Hedges’ arrest the university had “immediately and publicly confirmed the reasons for Matt’s travel and the nature of his PhD research”.  

“Liaising with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the university then worked actively to secure Matt’s release throughout the period of his detention,” Professor Corbridge said. “The university has since undertaken a thorough internal review of its research approvals process which will conclude shortly.”   

John Nagle, a reader at the Institute of Conflict, Transitions and Peace Research at the University of Aberdeen, said that he was not aware that universities had done anything “to address these issues, especially for PhD researchers doing research in dangerous places”.

“There is more of an attempt to be a bit more stringent in terms of ethical issues to ensure that researchers don’t do anything, not to endanger themselves but to put the universities in a bad light,” he said.

Dr Nagle added that the increasing pressure on academics to produce research that has an impact on society was forcing them to engage more closely with policymakers and therefore risked scholars being seen as “passing on information to policymakers in a way that can be misconstrued as policy on intelligence”.

He said that it was time for a “network among scholars and researchers in the UK” to share information on the issue and their expertise of working in particular countries, adding that the response should be led by academics themselves who could then potentially “push universities” to take action.

Glen Rangwala, a lecturer in Cambridge’s department of politics and international studies, who worked with Mr Regeni, said that universities were much more “risk-averse” today than they were 30 years ago. Many institutions already employed professional risk assessors for students and early career researchers who are intending to do work in problematic environments, and training of such scholars is becoming more widespread, he said.

Dr Rangwala added that the British government advised all British-Iranian dual nationals not to go to Iran, which imposes “severe obstacles to the development of academic knowledge. But I think it is something that at least for now, given what’s been happening with dual nationals in Iran, we can’t evade.”

Behind bars overseas: academics in trouble abroad

Giulio Regeni
University of Cambridge PhD student and visiting scholar at the American University in Cairo disappeared in January 2016. His body was later found beside a road on the outskirts of Cairo with evidence that he had been tortured.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert
British-Australian lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne was reportedly arrested in Iran in September last year and has been sentenced to 10 years in prison on spying charges.

Kameel Ahmady
Iranian authorities detained the independent anthropological researcher and dual Iranian-British citizen on “national security” grounds in August.

Abbas Edalat
Imperial College London academic was arrested and detained in Iran on security charges in April 2018. A founder of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, he was released around eight months later.

Yang Hengjun
Chinese-born Australian writer and visiting scholar at Columbia University has been held in China since January on suspicion of espionage.

Meimanat Hosseini Chavoshi
Research fellow at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health was detained as she was leaving Iran in December 2018 but reportedly released the following month.

Fariba Adelkhah
French-Iranian director of research for the Centre for International Studies at Sciences Po in Paris was reportedly detained in Iran in June during a research trip.

Ahmadreza Djalali
Researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden was arrested during a trip to Iran in April 2016. In October 2017, he was found guilty of spying and sentenced to death. He has been granted Swedish citizenship in a bid to free him.

Xiyue Wang
PhD student at Princeton University was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran in 2017.

Homa Hoodfar
Canadian-Iranian professor of anthropology, based at Concordia University in Montreal, was arrested and imprisoned in Iran in 2016 before being released later the same year.

Simon Baker


Print headline: ‘Clinical lack of support’ for staff working overseas

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Reader's comments (1)

when in such academic ‘forefronts’ how do you thread the line between innocent data collection and actionable intelligence? Remember the “dodgy dossier” and Tony blair Iraq invasion ? The jitteriness of local authorities in these countries concerning possible dual use of data ( one purely academic ... if there is such a thing ... another espionage utilisability ) must be factored into the risk assessments when sending scholars out to these areas. These risks may either have to be accepted, negotiated, navigated or be considered prohibitive enough to warrant removing certain places from the go to list. many countries are getting more and more nervous about data collection and data sharing . Sometimes for the right reasons , other times for the wrong. Most times indeterminate or indeterminable some of Trump policies are also beginning to increase the risk of doing research in US universities by academics who are deemed suspect by some seemingly arbitrary criteria . Basil jide fadipe.


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