FCDO officials censured over failure to help torture victim

Consular staff did not follow their own rules and repeatedly failed to spot the signs that a British academic jailed in Abu Dhabi might have been tortured
Photo: Avpics/Alamy

By Jonathan Owen

07 Aug 2023

The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has ruled that the Foreign Office was guilty of maladministration in the case of a Briton imprisoned in Abu Dhabi who showed signs of having been tortured.

Matthew Hedges travelled to the United Arab Emirates in April 2018 to carry out research for his PhD and was travelling back to the UK in May 2018 when he was arrested at Dubai airport on suspicion of being a British spy.

He ended up imprisoned for six months and has described how he was interrogated for up to 15 hours a day,  kept in solitary confinement,  and forcibly given medication.

Hedges was released in November 2018. His ordeal resulted in post traumatic stress disorder and he complained to the ombudsman that the FCDO failed to address the mistreatment he suffered during his time in prison.

In its ruling, published on Thursday, the ombudsman found that the FCDO “failed to follow its own guidance on detecting potential torture and mistreatment of British nationals.”

It stated that when they had visited Hedges, embassy staff noted his voice was shaking, he avoided eye contact and mentioned having anxiety attacks. “These were all signs that he might have been subject to torture or mistreatment.”

FCDO guidelines state that staff should act on these warning signs even when they do not have consent,  according to the ombudsman.

“Given that Mr Hedges was supervised at all times by those he alleges were mistreating him, it must have been clear to FCDO staff that he was not in a position to give or withhold consent,” it states.

The actions of the FCDO “concerning signs of torture and mistreatment were not consistent with relevant guidance” and caused Hedges “an injustice.”

The ombudsman has recommended that the FCDO apologise to Hedges “for the impact of the failings,” and pay £1,500 in compensation, and “say what it will do to ensure its handling of similar circumstances is consistent with relevant guidance.”

Rebecca Hilsenrath, PHSO chief executive, commented: “It is hard to imagine the experience that Mr Hedges has endured and quite how terrifying his detention must have been. The nightmare was made even worse by being failed by the British government. He trusted them to help him and they let him down. Officials failed to notice signs of torture, failed to intervene and failed to help.”

She added: “At the end of the day, the role of the government is to protect its citizens and this was a profound failure. The impact will run deep for Mr Hedges and he will have to live with that for the rest of his life.”

Hilsenrath said: “This must not happen again to anyone else. We have asked the FCDO to make sure it will fully use all its powers to protect British citizens abroad, and ensure that they are there precisely when they are most needed.”

Hedges welcomed the ombudsman’s findings and said: “The most crucial thing for my recovery is a formal apology from the Foreign Office and for them to acknowledge and to implement changes so that other people who are currently or have been in similar circumstances don't have to endure this."

In a statement, a FCDO spokesperson said: “The best interests of British nationals, including those detained overseas, is at the heart of our consular work and we support their families wherever we can. We will review the Ombudsman’s findings and respond in due course.”

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