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UAE pardons British student charged with spying

Matthew Hedges, the British student sentenced to life in prison for spying in the United Arab Emirates, has been pardoned. CNN's Nic Robertson has the details.

Posted: Nov 26, 2018 7:40 PM
Updated: Nov 26, 2018 7:55 PM

Matthew Hedge's release from a life sentence in an Emirati prison for spying is a fudge moment for the British. Whatever their reservations, now is the time to gag down the unwelcome sweet and be grateful it was offered at all.

After all, fudge is a confection of butter and sugar, often offered by an aging relative. Meant in kindness, one cannot refuse -- but its consumption is an act of diplomacy. To smile and swallow is always the best option.

The Emiratis are adamant that he was spying in their country. That he was seeking information on commercial, political, military and intelligence matters and that he was investigated as a result of a tipoff.

If this is true, then Matthew Hedges was more Johnny English than James Bond.

He was arrested May 5 at a Dubai airport as he tried to leave and, the Emiratis say, he confessed during interrogation to working for the UK's Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as Mi6.

Journalists were shown video of some of these claimed confessions, but we were not allowed to film or record it.

Nonetheless, in the first example Hedges is asked during what appears to be a court hearing: "What is your rank in Mi6?"

He replies: "Captain."

This might be convincing to those who believe that Royal Navy Commander James Bond is based on real life. But unlike in the movies, there are no military ranks in Mi6. Jobs and relative status are defined by role.

In another series of edited clips, this time set in an office, Hedges seems relatively relaxed and loquacious in his description of his role inside British intelligence.

The scene we saw showed no signs that Hedges was speaking under duress.

His family said that he was held for five months in solitary confinement and that he was subjected to "harsh interrogation."

The video does have him describe himself in English as an "Mi6 analyst." This, as he says, is not a "field officer" role but rather one that involves processing the information collected by Mi6 operators and their agents (spies they have recruited) from the field.

But he goes on to say, in the edited video, that he did take on a role as a field officer using his Ph.D. research as cover. In contradicting his own story, he suggests to his interrogators that he shifted from being an analyst to being a field agent. But training to recruit and run agents overseas takes Mi6 years.

It is true that there are analysts and field officers in Mi6. It's extremely unlikely that a non-Arabic speaking analyst would be sent to develop contacts in a nation that's an intimate ally, across a vast range of subjects with a view to recruiting agents to spy for Britain.

The Emiratis insist they have further evidence, which includes analysis of Hedge's electronic devices and documentations that ties him to Mi6 and to attempting to get hold of the nation's most sensitive issues.

They believe they have proved their point. They also know that bitterness between the former Trucial States, who were British protectorates until 47 years ago, is bad for both sides.

The Emirates use British commercial law. Their military is based on the British traditions. Former British intelligence and special forces officers are often trusted advisers to the leadership of the Emirates.

Abu Dhabi's ruling al Nahyan family owns vast tracts of London; the Maktoums of Dubai are preeminent in Britain's racing scene. The sons of daughters of wealthy Emiratis are often educated in British private schools. And the Emirates have billions of petrol dollars that the City of London has long enjoyed investing on their behalf.

The two nations are deeply intertwined and dependent on each other -- above all in matters of national security and intelligence.

Both sides need this saga to be swept aside. For the UAE it's a matter of national pride that they caught a "spy" but have shown mercy to a friend.

For the Brits it's a fudge eating moment -- unless of course Matthew Hedges is a real spy.

It that's the case then British intelligence is a contradiction in terms and given the central role of Mi6 in the global fight against violent Islamist movements, that's a hard idea for the West to swallow.

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