Matthew Hedges was arrested at Dubai International Airport in 2018, and spent seven months in almost complete isolationVtTN

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of self-harm, discussion of torture and human rights abuses, as well as brief mention of suicide and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people.

Speaking to Varsity Co-Editor this afternoon (08/07), Matthew Hedges, a former Durham PhD student who was sentenced to life imprisonment in the UAE before being pardoned days later, raised grave concerns over the University’s proposed £400 million collaboration with the UAE.

Hedges told Varsity that the proposal did not “surprise me in the slightest.” He highlighted other examples of universities collaborating with the UAE such as New York University (NYU), but added: “such a prestigious university doing this and accepting it and even acknowledging [...] in their press release [that] there are issues, and despite that fact they’re still going ahead with it shows where their commitment and interest really lies.”

“It all comes down to money”, Hedges summarised.

In documents leaked to Varsity, the University acknowledged it is “fully aware of the UAE’s recent treatment of UK researchers and other visitors”.

“That is, for me, probably the worst bit of it,” Hedges told Varsity. “It is the fact that there is that self-acknowledgement. And despite that fact, they're continuing to go forward.”

Hedges criticised the lack of support generally given by universities to academics and students caught up in global disputes, arguing that a University “does everything possible not to get involved”.

He added that the collaboration is “a dangerous precedent to set” and that it is “quite frankly, alarming” that the University has admitted to being aware of the treatment of academics in the country yet is continuing with the proposal.

“Cambridge has a great reputation in many ways. But it has an appalling reputation when it comes to the defense of academics.”

“They cannot justify the lack of protection [for academics and students]... they cannot say that they are safe in the UAE, because that’s not the truth.”

When asked if he believes the “sufficient support” promised by the University will be enough to keep academics safe in the UAE, Hedges stated that the phrase “is legitimizing the self-repression and the degeneration of human rights of Cambridge academics and students.” He believes that the University is “trying to absolve themselves of responsibility”, in the case that anything should happen to a student or academic working under the collaboration.

Hedges also responded to the risks highlighted by the University, that is “reputation”, a “values gap” between the UK and UAE, “the potential burden such a large partnership could place on parts of the University and attendant mission drift”, as well as “academic freedom and institutional autonomy”. Highlighting the placement of “reputation” as the first risk, he  told Varsity: “you’ve [the University of Cambridge] made your bed, now lie in it.”

When asked if there are further risks associated with the project, Hedges told Varsity that the list is not exhaustive. According to him, the risks are deliberately vague: “that’s deliberately designed to try and make it seem as though there are fewer issues.”

He also questioned whether it would be possible for LGBTQ+ students and academics to travel to the UAE, as homosexuality and identifying as transgender are both illegal.

“The second you go there, you are not under the jurisdiction of the university, you are under the jurisdiction of an authoritarian state who has shown repeatedly to have abused human rights.”

Hedges was arrested in 2018 in Dubai International Airport, after a two week trip conducting field research for his PhD. 

“They put a blindfold on me, handcuffed me to the bottom of a car. They drove to Abu Dhabi. They said it was fine, you’ll go home soon.”

However, Hedges proceeded to be detained for seven months, and claims he was held by “extrajudicial” authorities. “They wouldn’t let me sleep. They would have extraordinarily bright lights.”

He had no access to outside communications or legal assistance. 

Hedges claims he was asked if he would be willing to steal documentation from the Foreign Office. “They accused me of being a spy for MI6. It was ridiculous and farcical.” 

He recalled being  interrogated nearly daily, some days for nearly fifteen hours, and when he tried to claim his innocence, was threatened with torture. “They threatened to send me abroad, said I would never see the light of day, I’d never see my family again.”


Mountain View

Documents reveal proposed £400 million collaboration between University of Cambridge and United Arab Emirates

He told Varsity that he was given a cocktail of drugs including Ritalin, diazepam, sleeping tablets, and antidepressants. He described how they left him desperate: “At this point, I’ll tell you whatever you want, that’s what those guys are there to do. They don't care what the truth is. They just need to get some form of confession.”

Hedges detailed suffering with PTSD as a result of his imprisonment. He added: “I felt a lot of guilt. I knew as a result of these interrogations, people that I either met or people that I had some form of connection to would face repercussions.”

He recalled the impact of seven months of self-isolation on his physical and mental health. During this time, he began purging, and described vomiting blood due to the amount of medication he was on: “I felt so numb. I then started using pencils to scratch and draw blood. And then eventually I tried to commit suicide in the bathroom.”

Initially, Hedges was accused of handling secret information. This was later downgraded to handling sensitive information. “The fact that they charged me and they sentenced me to life imprisonment based on having sensitive information, is an extremely, extremely dangerous precedent to set.”

Hedges was eventually allowed to see a defence lawyer, but told Varsity this was only for five minutes, the day before his defence hearing. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, but days later was given a presidential pardon and returned to the UK. 

After his experiences, Hedges believes that projects such as the £400 million collaboration with the UAE: “shouldn't be automatically accepted or rejected. There should be an open consensus and deliberation over these partnerships and what goes into them. That's kind of the point of our society that we live in as well as the fact that it's part of higher education. You need that wider engagement. Sadly, the fact is that this is being done secretly and has only come to attention due to a leak.”

The University has been contacted for comment.