LONDON — Fifteen-hour interrogations. Harmful cocktails of medicines. Offers of freedom in exchange for his theft of British government documents.
In his first public comments since being released last week from seven months of detention in the United Arab Emirates, Matthew Hedges, a British academic, described the extended psychological torture he says he endured at the hands of his interrogators.
Mr. Hedges, 31, was sentenced last month to life in prison after being convicted of spying for the British government during a research trip, part of his doctoral studies on the effects of the Arab Spring on Emirati diplomacy and security. He was pardoned by the Emirati government last week and returned to Britain after British officials lobbied for his release.
Locked up alone in a windowless cell with fluorescent lights that gave him migraines, Mr. Hedges was repeatedly accused by his captors of working for MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service and questioned about his sources for information that was freely available online, he said.
He told The Times of London that the interrogators offered him leniency early in his detention if he agreed to steal documents from the British Foreign Office and give them to the Emiratis.
“I started having a panic attack,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘How am I supposed to get this information?’”
The British government and Mr. Hedges have denied he was a British spy. After denying the charges during one session, he was made to stand for the rest of the day in ankle cuffs, he said in a separate interview on Wednesday with BBC Radio 4 Today. Emirati security officials also threatened to take him to an overseas military base where he would be imprisoned and beaten, Mr. Hedges said.
After days of mounting pressure and promises from his interrogators that they would ease his treatment if he admitted to spying, Mr. Hedges said, he finally signed a confession. It was written in Arabic, which he said he did not understand. When his interrogators asked for his position in MI6, he falsely confessed to being a captain, a rank that he later learned does not exist in the agency.
Mr. Hedges, a graduate student at Durham University in England, was leaving Dubai following his research trip when he was approached at the airport by 10 Emirati state security officials, who led him away blindfolded and in handcuffs.
Mr. Hedges had received a diagnosis of depression and anxiety shortly before leaving for the United Arab Emirates, and his condition worsened during his incarceration. After he begged for medicine, he said he was given a cocktail of Xanax, Valium and another drug that gave him seizures as he slept.
Hiba Zayadin, an assistant researcher at Human Rights Watch focusing on the United Arab Emirates, said the coerced confession and inhumane conditions were consistent with other allegations of torture in Emirati detention. And with many British students, academics and businesspeople traveling to the country, Mr. Hedges was not the first to report abuse there. The British Foreign Office said in 2015 that in the previous five years it had received 43 complaints from British nationals of torture or mistreatment in the Emirati justice system.
Ms. Zayadin said the British government’s early attempts to handle Mr. Hedges’ detention quietly had failed, and that it should alter its approach in the face of increasingly aggressive Emirati behavior.
“U.K. authorities should harshly and publicly criticize Hedges’ treatment in detention and review their close relationship with the U.A.E. in the wake of it,” Ms. Zayadin said, “especially as countless others languish in prison in inhumane conditions and following grossly unfair trials.”
But another analyst said that Britain’s looming departure from the European Union may weaken any appetite for cutting ties with the United Arab Emirates.
“Given the Brexit backdrop, the U.K. government is loath to estrange a regional ally that is worth billions to the U.K. Treasury,” said the analyst, David Roberts, a lecturer at King’s College London.
Mr. Hedges said he would soon begin a legal campaign to hold the Emirati government accountable for his mistreatment.