Wife of Durham student detained in UAE wants researcher immunity

Daniela Tejada says government support for Matthew Hedges, who has been held in solitary confinement for five months, has been ‘ineffective’

October 17, 2018
Daniela Tejada is worried about Matthew Hedges’ welfare
Matthew Hedges with his wife, Daniela Tejada

The wife of a Durham University student who has been detained in an Abu Dhabi jail for five months has called for researchers working overseas to be given immunity from prosecution, to protect their work from political interference.

Matthew Hedges, a doctoral research student specialising in Middle Eastern politics, was detained at Dubai airport on 5 May and taken into custody. On 15 October the United Arab Emirates government said that he had been charged with spying for a foreign state.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Daniela Tejada said that her husband had been kept in “appalling conditions” and was suffering from depression and extreme anxiety.

Ms Tejada said that, while she “could not fault” the support given by Durham, the response of the UK’s Foreign Office had so far been “ineffective”.

“[Their] approach is to continue to handle things diplomatically and advocate for Matt’s welfare but I feel that at this stage it should be made more than clear that Matt is not a spy, he is a researcher,” she said. “It should be the government’s duty – not just to Matt, but to all British academics – to defend academic and research independence.”

Academics should be treated similarly to embassy staff and employees of some non-governmental organisations and given diplomatic immunity to ensure that their research or safety is not compromised, said Ms Tejada, who insisted that her husband was innocent of wrongdoing.

“Without this, academics are not assured that their government is going to protect them,” said Ms Tejada. “People will be put off working in the field, which is sad, because the Middle East is a fascinating region. [However,] the UK definitely needs to revaluate its academic relationship with countries that are willing to be so arbitrary [in their treatment of] researchers.”

Mr Hedges’ detention comes two years after the murder of Giulio Regeni, a University of Cambridge PhD student who disappeared in Egypt after conducting research on the country’s trade unions.

Some researchers have questioned the UK’s ties with the UAE in the wake of Mr Hedges’ arrest.

Durham has put a temporary moratorium on all non-UAE national student researchers travelling to the UAE until the reasons for Mr Hedges’ detention are fully established.

A Foreign Office spokesman added: “Our staff are supporting a British man following his detention in the UAE. We are assisting his family and remain in close contact with the local authorities. The foreign secretary has also personally raised his case with his Emirati counterpart.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Ensure safety of scholars abroad’

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Reader's comments (1)

Sadly, the UK Foreign Office is not exactly robust in defending British citizens who are accused of crimes overseas, especially in countries where the rule of law is not strong. I'm not sure academics should be a special case - the Foreign Office needs to up its game generally.

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