Matthew Hedges: “Nothing has changed, things have probably gotten worse”

By Anna Marshall

Almost a year since he was pardoned by UAE authorities after being sentenced to life imprisonment, Matthew Hedges has called for universities to ensure better provisions are in place for travelling academics.

After embarking on a two-week research trip to the UAE last year as a Hatfield College PhD candidate, Hedges spent almost seven months in solitary confinement after being accused of spying on behalf of the British government.

Durham needs to set a standard for academics to be better prepared

“I’m trying to get myself back to a better place,” Hedges told Palatinate, “and that is obviously quite difficult. It has its ups and downs. I am teaching in Durham every Monday, which I like getting involved in. I’ve finished my research. I’m on my last draft – I’m giving that in soon, so I should be finishing in January.”

Further opening up about the difficulties he has faced following release, Hedges states: “It’s quite difficult to make people understand. Because it’s so unrelatable, it’s so difficult. How are you supposed to be able to understand that? It is quite difficult. People try and support you, in those different ways, but it’s not always successful.

“It’s been a year since I got back, but I haven’t started [mental health] treatment yet. The NHS is quite burdensome and bureaucratic. I’ve been assessed by three different psychiatrists – I’ve got PTSD, depression and anxiety. We’re also in the process to get the University’s insurance to pay for private care with a specialist trauma centre”.

We need to learn from what happened

The Sunday Telegraph reported last year that Hedges had been forced to take a cocktail of drugs, including Xanax, Valium and Ritalin. Opening up about his ongoing dependency on these drugs, Hedges admits “they have been a stabilisation. The suicidal thoughts have come back, the self-harming has come back but actually the medication has helped.

“I have to take this medication every day. Anxiety and depression happened before I went. That’s fairly normal for postgrads; there’s an extremely high level of that, which is a separate issue”

In the next month, Hedges expects to hear back regarding the complaints he lodged to the UN and to Parliament, as it is almost a year since his release. Hedges also praised the ongoing support he has received from fellow academics since his release: “There’s lots of people with similar situations, and for whatever reason they haven’t said anything, because they might have felt a certain stigma attached to it. It’s a certain embarrassment, part of that cycle of feeling guilty, feeling they might have done something wrong – there are different reasons for it, there’s the idea that they messed up in some way. Feeling that they maybe were caught out.”

Hedges also criticised a general lack of education about engaging in fieldwork as an academic, stating there “should be a greater awareness of the difficulties that academics face when engaging in fieldwork.”

I’m still waiting for mental health treatment

In his own case, Hedges affirms that his imprisonment was undoubtedly for political reasons: “Across the region, they use people as ransom, it’s a similar strategy taken by other states. By making me admit and confess to working for the British government, they were involving them [the British government] in that way.”

When asked whether his trip would have been received differently if it had occurred this year, Hedges claims “nothing has changed, things have probably gotten worse.”

What on earth were those students doing there in the first place?

“Two weeks ago some Edinburgh University students were arrested in Cairo, and so Edinburgh sent all their students home, so my simple remark would be: what on earth were those students doing there in the first place?”

Hedges believes “we need to learn from what happened,” continuing that it is “negligent that Edinburgh University sent their students to Cairo, for the fact of the known human rights abuses in Egypt – the known security risks that there are; the ethical assessment; and the complete lack of training and capability development – meant it was negligent to send their students.”

“We’re really trying hard to get Durham to take the lead on this, to set a standard for academics to be better prepared. This is something that Stuart Corbridge [Vice-Chancellor of Durham University] promised, but it hasn’t materialised.”

In response to Hedges’ comments, Professor Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor & Warden, said: University immediately and publicly confirmed the reasons for Matt’s travel and the nature of his PhD research. “The University then worked actively to secure Matt’s release throughout the period of his detention. The University has since undertaken a thorough internal review of its research approvals process which will conclude shortly.”

Photograph provided by Daniela Tejada

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