LONDON — A British academic who had been sentenced to life in prison in the United Arab Emirates on spying charges received a presidential pardon and was released on Monday.
Before announcing the pardon, the UAE defended its assertion that Matthew Hedges, 31, a doctoral student at Durham University, was spying on behalf of the British government.
“He was a part-time PhD researcher, part-time businessman, but he was 100 percent a full-time secret service operative,” Jaber al-Lamki, a spokesman for the UAE government, said at a news conference broadcast live on British television. “He was here to steal the UAE’s sensitive national security secrets for his paymasters.”
UAE officials played for journalists, but did not broadcast, video clips of what they characterized as a confession by Hedges, in which he reportedly said he was a “captain” with MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence agency. That rank does not exist in the agency.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt welcomed news of the pardon but said Britain never supported the accusations.
“Fantastic news about Matthew Hedges,” Hunt tweeted. “Although we didn’t agree with charges we are grateful to UAE govt for resolving issue speedily.”
Hedges was arrested May 5 at Dubai’s airport as he was leaving the country after a two-week trip that his university and family say was to research Emirati security and foreign policy for his PhD thesis.
After a judge in Abu Dhabi pronounced the life sentence last week, Hunt warned about repercussions to the relationship with Britain.
The pardon was issued with immediate effect. Hedges was released from detention and headed to the British embassy in the UAE, in advance of flying back to London, according to his family.
UAE officials said the pardon came in response to a letter from Hedges’s family to UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan asking for clemency. He was one of 785 people pardoned ahead of the country’s national day.
Hedges’s wife, Daniela Tejada, described the pardon as “the best news we could’ve received” and thanked the public and friends for their support.
“I’ve been brought back to life,” she tweeted.
Following the pardon, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said it was time for the two countries to move on.
“The gracious presidential customary national day pardon allows us to close this chapter and to concentrate on the many positive aspects of the relationship,” he said, according to the state news agency.
Paul Schemm in Washington contributed to this report.