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Life Sentence for British Student Draws Criticism For U.A.E. (#GotBitcoin?)

The U.K. Foreign Office said the verdict wasn’t what it expected from a friend and trusted partner.

The United Arab Emirates sentenced a British academic it accuses of spying to life imprisonment, a decision that has drawn condemnation from Western academics and politicians against a Gulf nation that wants to be seen as a beacon of progress in the Arab world.

The British government condemned the sentence shortly after it was handed down to Matthew Hedges by a local court in Abu Dhabi, saying it wasn’t expected “from a friend and trusted partner” and could have repercussions for the relationship. Prime Minister Theresa May told lawmakers that the British government was discussing the decision with U.A.E. officials at the highest levels.

The U.A.E. has spent billions of dollars in recent years building local campuses of New York University and Paris’s Sorbonne University, among other foreign institutions, but has faced criticism over its record on academic freedom and freedom of expression.

Mr. Hedges was arrested on May 5 at Dubai’s airport following two weeks of research into Emirati security policy, according to people close to him. He was carrying out the studies in pursuit of a doctoral degree at Durham University in the U.K.

After his arrest, Mr. Hedges spent more than 5½ months in solitary confinement, according to a statement from his wife, Daniela Tejada. He was interrogated without a lawyer and forced to sign a confession in Arabic, which he doesn’t speak or read, the statement said.

Mr. Hedges was charged with spying for the U.K. in October. About two weeks later he was released on bail but ordered to stay in Dubai.

The U.A.E. has arrested and convicted foreigners for spying in the past, but Mr. Hedges’s case is unusual both because he is an academic and because he is from the U.K., a close ally of the U.A.E. dating back to before the country was established, when the area was part of a British protectorate.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said he was shocked by the verdict. Mr. Hunt visited Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E.’s capital, last week where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan and his brother, the foreign minister Abdullah Bin Zayed.

“Today’s verdict is not what we expect from a friend and trusted partner of the United Kingdom and runs contrary to earlier assurances,” Mr. Hunt’s statement said, adding that he had made clear that the handling of the case would have repercussions for the relationship between the countries.

The U.A.E. is one of several oil-rich monarchies in the Persian Gulf that have pursued a more aggressive foreign policy in recent years, as they challenge their rival Iran for regional power and influence. The Gulf state is a close ally of Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has come under growing international pressure over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month.

U.A.E. Attorney General Hamad Saif al-Shamsi said Mr. Hedges had pleaded guilty to all charges in the case after the court presented “compelling legal evidence,” according to the U.A.E.’s official news agency.

“The defendant confessed in detail to his crimes during investigations whereby he was accorded his full rights and assurances as per the U.A.E. Constitution and state laws to fair and transparent trial,” he said. He added that representatives of the British embassy accompanied Mr. Hedges in court.

As Mr. Hedges’s health deteriorated in detention, he was given tranquilizers by prison guards, and vomited daily, according to his wife’s statement.

“This has been the worst six months of my life, let alone for Matt who was shaking when he heard the verdict,” Ms. Tejada said. The sentencing followed a hearing that lasted less than five minutes and without Mr. Hedges’s lawyer present, according to her statement.

“The U.A.E. authorities should feel ashamed for such an obvious injustice,” she said.

Mr. Hedges is entitled to appeal the sentence.

Durham University, where Mr. Hedges studied under a well-known critic of the U.A.E., criticized the sentence.

“There has been no information given on what basis Matt was handed this sentence and no reason to believe that Matt was conducting anything other than legitimate academic research,” Durham Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge said.

Last month, more than 600 academics signed an open letter calling for Mr. Hedges to be released.

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