Freed academic Matthew Hedges warns of ‘worrying’ UAE surveillance practices at Goldsmiths talk

Matthew Hedges, an academic who was detained for seven months by the United Arab Emirates authorities last year, warned of the country’s “worrying” surveillance operations in a talk at Goldsmiths University yesterday.

He was given a life sentence for spying but was released in November after a video allegedly showed him confessing to being a member of Britain’s MI6 agency, which Britain has since denied.

Speaking to the New York Times journalist David Kirkpatrick in an event hosted by the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Hedges, 31, also claimed that others may have been imprisoned unlawfully.

He arrived in the UAE in May 2018 expecting to only stay for a two-week academic trip.

Before his arrest Hedges was surveilled both physically and through his phone, noting a telltale sign that it “sounded like it was underwater”.

Describing his seven month ordeal he said that he was interrogated for “six days by state security officers from Dubai” and then was moved back into solitary confinement.

Hedges said, “Other academics and other, say Emiratis, who are in prison, they don’t have the same protections that I did and so they are still there, they are still going through those same experiences. That is something that is quite a serious problem.”

Despite the nightmarish situation Hedges was put through, he still thought surveillance was needed in countries. Somewhat surprisingly, he said that “there is a need for surveillance in day to day, in every form of society. You know, private companies probably have more information on everyone than the government.”

“If it is controlled, if there are people, if they are held accountable and it does have a positive ability on society.”

He previously worked in a think-tank for five years which cooperated closely with soldiers and political officers. Because of this he believed that any potential issues could have been settled earlier.

“We had never, at least during my time period, had any issues with them at all whatsoever” he said. “I had actually left that think-tank and moved to a law firm for a year. So if there were to be any issues with myself personally and, I even asked at the time, why you did [they] not speak to me for that year?”

Hedges’ arrest attracted national press coverage and led to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt appealing for UAE authorities to release Hedges. When it was finally secured on the 26 November, Hunt described it as “fantastic news” and said he was “grateful” to the UAE government for agreeing to release the academic.

Hedges adds that he is still shocked at the situation he found himself in, “You don’t think it will get to the extent that it did.” he said, “I have no idea why and still there is no explanation as to how or why it happened in the way it did.”

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