By JON GAMBRELL
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates said on Monday it pardoned and released a British academic sentenced to life in prison on charges of spying in the Gulf Arab country, after showing videos of him purportedly acknowledging that he worked for MI6, the overseas arm of British intelligence.
The announcement of Matthew Hedges’ release ends a diplomatic headache for the UAE, a staunch American and British ally in the Mideast.
However, Emirati officials made a point of insisting their arrest came on solid ground, showing a closed-door meeting of journalists hastily convened in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, short video clips of Hedges allegedly acknowledging his intelligence work.
“He was a part-time PhD researcher, a part-time businessman, but he was a 100-percent a full-time secret service operative,” said Jaber al-Lamki, an official with the UAE’s National Media Council.
“Mr. Hedges has been found guilty of espionage. He sought out sensitive information he knew had access to it. He was here to steal the UAE’s sensitive national security secrets for his paymasters,” al-Lamki added.
Daniela Tejada, Hedges’ wife, told BBC that she does not believe her husband is a spy, saying the ordeal has “been an absolutely nightmarish seven months.”
“I can’t wait to have him back” she said and added, “in my heart, I know that he isn’t a spy.”
Asked about her husband being pardoned, rather than having the spying conviction quashed, Tejada said that “if that is what it takes for him to be back, I just welcome the news.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also welcomed the decision on Hedges, tweeting it was “fantastic news.” He said Britain did not agree with the charges against Hedges but added that it is “grateful to UAE government for resolving issue speedily.”
“We’ve seen no evidence to support these accusations,” Hunt said, adding that the U.K. is “deeply perplexed” by the charge leveled against Hedges.
Hunt had lobbied senior UAE official for Hedges’ release. The UAE came under increasing international pressure since the academic’s life sentence was handed down last week.
“Today we want to thank them (the UAE) for the fact that they’ve reflected upon the strong representations we have made,” Hunt said Monday.
UAE President and Abu Dhabi ruler Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan issued the clemency for Hedges on Sunday, along with over 780 others to mark the country’s forthcoming National Day. In his statement, al-Lamki said Hedges had routine access to doctors and lawyers, while British Embassy officials attended his court hearing.
Al-Lamki declined to take any questions from journalists at the news conference. Al-Lamki later said at 3 p.m. on Monday that Hedges had been released, without elaborating.
Emirati officials insisted Hedges’ arrest was warranted, showing short clips of him being questioned and being in court.
In the video, Hedges, a 31-year-old doctorate student in Middle Eastern studies at Durham University, is seen describing himself as a “captain” in MI6 during what appears to be a court hearing somewhere in the Gulf Arab country.
However, MI6, also known as the Secret Intelligence Service, is not known to use military ranks. The service is similar to the CIA in that it handles covert overseas intelligence collection and analysis.
Another clip appears to show Hedges speaking to someone in an office, describing his work as trying to understand UAE weapon purchases and strategy. He says he describes himself as an academic as “it helps the research to go in in an easy way.”
Hedges then snaps his fingers and adds: “Then it becomes MI6.”
Emirati officials did not allow journalists to record the videos. In the office video, Hedges appears in a blue polo shirt and jeans. He did not appear to be injured or under duress, though the audio during the court appearance sounded garbled. Emirati officials also did not offer any context for the video clips, which ended with Hedges describing himself as being alone in the UAE, looking down at his hands.
Associated Press writers Jill Lawless and Gregory Katz in London and Fay Abuelgasim in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.