Matthew Hedges: Students on research trips should have similar training to journalists

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In August, the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) apologised to former Durham PhD student Matthew Hedges and offered him a £1,500 payment; the parliamentary watchdog had ruled that the Office failed to protect the British citizen, whom the UAE detained and accused of espionage while he was undertaking a research trip.

While the ruling provides a closure of sorts, speaking to Palatinate, Hedges, who now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, described it as a “sober victory”.

“This has literally taken four years. I had to go through the Ombudsman because the former Foreign Secretary said that he would conduct an independent investigation, but never did.”

The Foreign Office did not respond to Palatinate’s request for comment, however, a spokesperson told The Independent, “We recognise that Mr Hedges’ and his family’s experience was a distressing one that has had a profound impact.

“We have accepted the ombudsman’s finding for Mr Hedges, apologised, and will pay the suggested compensation.”

“The nightmare was made even worse by being failed by the British government. He trusted them to help him, and they let him down”

the parliamentary ombudsman

UAE security officials detained Hedges at Dubai airport in 2018 at the end of a two-week research trip, in which Hedges had been looking into the effects of the Arab Spring on the Gulf states.

While under detention, UAE officials placed the Durham PhD student in solitary confinement, forced him to take addictive medication, and interrogated him for up to 15 hours a day.

Hedges was sentenced to life imprisonment in the UAE on espionage charges after a 5 minute hearing. However, a few days later the UAE President pardoned Hedges, and former Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, stated that Hedges had never been involved in espionage following a media campaign for his release.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman said, “It’s hard to imagine the experience Mr Hedges has endured and quite how terrifying his detention must have been. The nightmare was made even worse by being failed by the British government. He trusted them to help him, and they let him down. Officials failed to notice signs of torture, failed to intervene, and failed to help.”

The UAE claims: “Matthew Hedges was convicted of espionage in 2018 following a fair and transparent trial at which he admitted the charges against him.

“Allegations by Mr Hedges of mistreatment are categorically false and lack evidential basis. His claims of being ‘tortured’ while in UAE custody are wholly untrue and without any foundation whatsoever.”

Matthew Hedges is now calling for the Foreign Office to change how they deal with citizens detained abroad, and how universities assess risk for their research students

Matthew Hedges is now calling for the Foreign Office to change how they deal with citizens detained abroad, and how universities assess risk for their research students.

The Ombudsman’s report found that at every meeting Hedges had with a Foreign Office official, the UAE guards allegedly responsible for Hedges’ torture were present.

Hence, he was critical of the FCO’s claim that they “always aim to act in the best interest of the individual, and acting without their consent in raising concerns about torture and mistreatment creates unacceptable risks.”

“So the idea of consent is that there also has to be a degree of responsibility. But there isn’t any legal remit for it. But if it’s a country that then practices torture, and you recognise that fact, and you haven’t seen a certain individual for however long, there should already be alarm bells ringing. Right?”

“You can’t tell the country what to do, of course, but you can at least state that this is the context in which this person’s detention is occurring.”

Regarding the issue of consent, the FCDO has said, “The Ombudsman rejected elements of the complaint and its report concluded we did act correctly in seeking access to Mr Hedges. We always aim to act in the best interest of the individual, and acting without their consent in raising concerns about torture and mistreatment creates unacceptable risks.”

“Helping British nationals abroad is a top priority, and we offer advice and support at any time of day or night, helping over 20,000 British people and their families every year”

foreign, commonwealth and development office

The Foreign Office has previously agreed to be more specific about the support it will provide to British citizens who encounter problems abroad, and to review the guidance they issue internally on cases where torture and mistreatment is suspected.

The UAE pardoned Hedges; he still has a criminal record for espionage, despite the UK government stating that Hedges has never been a spy.

He noted, that overall, “absolutely, to have the Ombudsman rule in my favour and for the FCO to then a month later apologise, it is a victory. But despite that, I’m the one who still has a conviction for espionage. The FCO acknowledged the injustice and everything else that happened. However, they aren’t doing anything really to help me with this, they’ve just apologised.”

In a statement, the FCDO said, “Helping British nationals abroad is a top priority, and we offer advice and support at any time of day or night, helping over 20,000 British people and their families every year.”

Hedges is also calling for universities to review their risk assessment processes, claiming that currently, “There is absolutely no acknowledgement or recognition of the types of issues that students need to understand, while undertaking research fieldwork.”

“We remain concerned for the suffering endured by our former student. We remain in contact with him and continue to provide support”

durham university spokesperson

In 2019 Durham’s previous Vice-Chancellor Professor Corbridge, told Palatinate, “The 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.”

However, 4 years on, Hedges says he hasn’t received any confirmation that the University has concluded their review or information about changes they have made.

“Which is a shame because why not? If there has been a review, you don’t have to go and tell me everything, but just tell me that you have undertaken a review.”

Matt Hedges also claimed that after he returned to the UK he “had professors from Durham telling me not to raise this issue further, in general, within the University.”

A Durham University spokesperson said: “We remain concerned for the suffering endured by our former student. We remain in contact with him and continue to provide support.”

Durham has changed their third-person provider since 2018, when Hedges was detained on a research trip for his PhD in the UAE

Hedges noted, “I can’t lay the blame at Durham, because it’s the same at any University fundamentally. There is no other approach, it’s a completely cultural issue in that sense.”

He claimed, “What [Durham’s risk assessment process] does is it gives the University a legal cupboard saying, ‘Well we did tell them what to do.’”

All students heading out on a placement at Durham must fill in a risk assessment form, which is checked over by a member of staff before the placement is approved. The University gives advice about research subjects, and those undertaking placements in places – which a third-person risk assessment tool judges as medium or high-risk – must have a short meeting with a member of staff.

Durham has changed their third-person provider since 2018, when Hedges was detained on a research trip for his PhD in the UAE.

However, at the time of writing, Drum Cussac, the University’s new provider​​, labels the UAE as a low-risk country. 

Hedges says he followed all of Durham’s protocols, undergoing an ethical and fieldwork assessment, and complying with the University’s requirement to remove all Emirati research subjects before undertaking the placement

Hedges says he followed all of Durham’s protocols, undergoing an ethical and fieldwork assessment, and complying with the University’s requirement to remove all Emirati research subjects before undertaking the placement.

However, he claims that it wasn’t enough.

“If you go to a journalist at a media outlet, and you go through the things that they have to do, the processes they have to go through, it’s completely different because they take on much greater responsibility, and they acknowledge it.”

“Every country has risks, it’s just acknowledging what they are because they do exist, you can’t ignore it.”

Hence, despite his recent “sober victory”, Hedges – who now suffers from PTSD and experiences panic attacks after his experiences in the UAE – continues to work with charities helping British detainees abroad and campaign for change.

While he acknowledged “the emotional stress and drain on [his] family,” the former Durham PhD graduate noted, “It’s so critically important for me to do this – I can’t stop.”

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