Private Notice Question
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of Mr Matthew Hedges, a British citizen, being imprisoned for life in the United Arab Emirates, how many times UK consular officials have met with Mr Hedges in the last six months, what consular assistance was provided during his detainment and trial in Abu Dhabi and what representations they are now making to the Government of that country.
My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.
My Lords, we are shocked and deeply disappointed by the verdict on 21 November and are raising it with the Emirati authorities at the highest levels. The Foreign Secretary is urgently seeking a call with Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed. The Foreign Secretary met the UAE ambassador to the UK this morning and is meeting Mr Hedges’s wife Daniela today. Consular staff have met Matthew on six occasions, three before his recent bail and three while he was on bail.
My Lords, there will be national and international indignation about the process and subsequent ruling. Is it the case that a primary purpose of our Government is the protection of citizens of the United Kingdom? Is the Minister satisfied that the Government have been sufficiently robust? Will they bring to the fore all endeavours, in the best interests of the Government in Abu Dhabi, but most particularly in those of Mr Hedges and for the standing of our Government?
The United Kingdom Government take very seriously the position of any UK citizens abroad. We intervene at the request of any family with a member confronting difficulties in another country where that is possible. In addition to the support that I mentioned, Foreign Office staff have been in close contact with Matthew, his family and his lawyer. We will continue to do all we can to support them as they consider the next steps. As well as our ambassador constantly raising the issue, the Foreign Secretary, when he was recently in the Gulf, raised the case with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed on 12 November and with Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed on three separate occasions. Minister Burt has also raised it with Deputy Foreign Minister Gargash on a number of occasions.
My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for asking this PNQ at this vital time. I think everyone across the House will share his concerns. Matthew’s wife this morning expressed concern about his health. Can the Minister confirm whether any representations have been made about his health? Will the Government ensure that he has adequate access to medical support? The other thing is that 120,000 UK citizens reside in the UAE and we have 11 universities represented there. Will there be any advice about the current situation or any support for those institutions?
While I have no specific information about Matthew’s health, I assure your Lordships that, if any requests are made by Matthew or his family, the Diplomatic Service will do its level best to relay them and to seek whatever support may be required in the circumstances. On the broader issues, the Foreign Office always monitors situations in other countries and will advise anyone who seeks advice of the assessment of travelling to them. In this case, the UK Government are in contact with the United Arab Emirates at the very highest level and are conveying in the starkest, bluntest possible terms the reaction within the United Kingdom to Matthew’s situation.
My Lords, is it not often the case, rather curiously, that British citizens convicted in Gulf courts turn out to have signed confessions in Arabic that they did not understand? Given that the UAE claims to have a transparent judicial system and that its Government are friendly toward the UK, is it not possible for the Government to point out to the UAE authorities, in a friendly manner, that British citizens facing trial in their courts require proper translation facilities and proper translation of documents?
My noble friend makes an important point. There are standards of fairness and observation of human rights in this country that, within our structure of courts and court appearances, we take for granted. We assume that other countries would be prepared to do the same. I am sure my noble friend’s comments will be noted. I have no specific information about the court environment that Matthew has had to face, other than that I believe it was left to an interpreter to explain to him what sentence the judge was imposing.
We hear that the trial of this PhD student lasted five minutes and that no lawyer was present. The Government have mentioned severe “diplomatic consequences”. Could the Minister elaborate on what they mean by this? Clearly, the safety and well-being of Matthew Hedges is the responsibility of the UK—and the UAE, which needs to be held accountable. What assurances are being sought that the case will be immediately revisited, that he will not be held in solitary confinement again or mistreated, and that he will be given full and appropriate medical assistance and free and fair family visitation rights?
The levels of representation and exchange currently taking place embrace, if not all, certainly the great majority of the points that the noble Baroness raised. If Matthew, his wife Daniela or the family have particular concerns, the UK Government will do everything within their power not just to relay them but to address them with consular support in the UAE. The Foreign Secretary has repeatedly made clear that the handling of this case by the UAE authorities will have repercussions on the relationship between our countries. That relationship has to be built on trust, and the Foreign Secretary very much regrets that this position has been reached. On a personal level, he is doing everything he can to robustly and bluntly explain to the UAE the exact sentiment within the United Kingdom about this case.
My Lords, I declare an interest as director of SOAS University of London. The Minister will be aware that this case has caused considerable anxiety in universities up and down the country. What specific advice should we give to staff and students conducting research or other academic activity in the UAE?
I repeat what I said earlier: we keep all our travel advice, including for the UAE, under constant review to ensure that it reflects our assessment of the risk to British nationals. We do not normally update our travel advice in relation to the specific circumstances of every consular assistance case we are involved in, but we will do so if we assess that British nationals travelling or living in the area might be affected. Our advice to anyone proposing to travel to any country where there might be issues is to seek advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to follow it.
My Lords, as the Foreign Secretary seeks to stiffen his sinews, can he reflect on the career of Palmerston and the Don Pacifico incident in particular, and do everything he possibly can to make the country responsible for the unjust imprisonment of this British subject realise that what it is doing will destroy the strength of the relations that we currently enjoy?
As I indicated earlier, the Foreign Secretary certainly takes the view that this inevitably has an effect on the relationship between our two countries. That is a matter of great regret but it is also a matter of fact. That relationship has to be built on trust, and I have no doubt that my noble friend’s remarks will be heard.
My Lords, are the Government aware that the late Sheikh Zayed, who founded the UAE, did so on the basis that he wanted his country to move towards a constitutional monarchy underpinned by the rule of law? In that capacity, some years ago I gave a lecture there on the importance of a stable society, and the rule of law in underpinning a stable society. Can the Minister remind the UAE that incidents such as this undermine the memory of the original aims of the late Sheikh Zayed?
I thank the noble Lord for making a very pertinent point, which, again, I am sure will not be lost on those who listen to it.
My Lords, does the Minister recall that Ministers in her own Government laid great stress on the building of closer relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE being crucial to the concept of a global Britain, in which we will pay less attention to Europe and much more attention to other close partners? If we now find ourselves in a much more difficult relationship with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, what does she think the implications are for the concept of a global Britain foreign policy?
The concept of a global Britain is not just a positive one but an entirely achievable one, and in fact I would argue that in many respects Britain enjoys a global status as we speak. I think that we all feel for the personal circumstances of this family, who find themselves in a situation that they probably never dreamed could arise. We all want to ensure that that family are aware that we are thinking of them and that the United Kingdom Government, through the determined and very energetic endeavours of the Foreign Secretary, are doing everything we can to address the issue and, we hope, to bring some comfort to Matthew and his wife.