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Hedges pardoned but protests persist

A British PhD student, who was arrested and given a life prison sentence in the UAE on allegations of espionage, has been  pardoned and released.

PhD student, Matthew Hedges has said he is innocent of the charges. Photo: Facebook/ Matthew Hedges

"Our priority is the safety of our staff and students"

Though Matthew Hedges was released, some have complained further, and the academics’ union UCU has called for a wholesale review of TNE operations in the Gulf state.

“HEIs must provide guarantees about the safety of staff and students in Dubai”

UCU head of policy and campaigns Matt Waddup said although the union is relieved Hedges has been pardoned, he called on the government and Durham to “do their utmost” to aid his recovery and for all HEIs to review relationships with the UAE and other host nations.

“UK universities with overseas operations should launch reviews covering human rights, trade union representation, academic freedom and ensuring that local workers employed by the institution are not exploited. It is vital that the profits from overseas operations are not achieved on the back of the dilution of staff and student rights and personal safety,” he said.

This follows a reaction from staff at the University of Birmingham, which opened a Dubai campus in September that The PIE News recently visited. After Hedges was arrested, the Birmingham UCU branch president James Brackley said staff were “outraged”, and linked the case to previous complaints made by staff.

Earlier in November, staff and students complained about the risk LGBT students and faculty may face in Dubai, where homosexuality, identifying as transgender or even displays of affection can carry prison sentences, or worse.

The UCU also said it had “serious misgivings” about exploitation of migrant workers in the construction of the next phase of the campus, which The PIE understands is close to sign-off.

“UCU members at the University of Birmingham are outraged at the sentence of Matthew Hedges and the university’s refusal to address the serious issues we have raised regarding its campus in Dubai. The university must now engage meaningfully with us to provide guarantees about the safety and academic freedom of staff and students in Dubai,” said Brackley.

The motion calls for University of Birmigham employees to turn down any training, tasks linked to the campus, including secondments or trips to Dubai.

In response, the university told The PIE News all staff views are respected, and opportunities in Dubai are optional, adding that most roles were filled after active applications.

“In working to establish our Dubai campus over the last three years, we have spent considerable time considering all aspects of working and living in Dubai and have drawn on the experience and expertise of a range of organisations – including specialist equalities bodies such as Stonewall, law firms and other UK, Australian, US and European universities operating successfully in the UAE over a number of years – in order to develop extensive advice and guidance for staff and students thinking about working or studying in Dubai,” the spokesperson said. 

“Our priority is the safety of our staff and students and the delivery of a high quality educational experience in locations across the world and we will continue to review and update our advice as appropriate to ensure this remains the case.”

A UAE spokesperson said Matthew Hedges was trying to steal “sensitive national security secrets” and used “two different identities to gather information from his targets”. He was “100% a secret service operative,” despite the pardon, according to the government spokesperson.

The Durham University student had always denied the allegations, and said he was forced to sign a document in Arabic (which he does not understand) which turned out to be a ‘confession’.

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