Undoubtedly, the case of Matthew Hedges, the Durham academic who received a life sentence in the UAE for allegedly spying against the state, is a major devastation for the entire university community and even more so for his close family. To have your whole life taken away from you in less than five minutes, which is how long his trial lasted, in a foreign country, crippling with uncertainty and horror in a cold isolated court, is beyond even some of our worst nightmares.
This case does raise a particularly significant, however, even if somewhat cynical and critical message, for the academic community in particular. Without being able to make a comprehensive judgement on the level of support and surveillance Hedges’ academic proposal received, as a young academic, the naivety of tackling such issues is plausible. For this reason, the university should be striving to protect their PhD students at their highest level of potency, even if it means including some restrictions on certain proposals. As undoubtedly invaluable as this research may have proved to be at first glance, this case does raise questions about the degree of academic liberalism that should be permitted by the university. Despite the confirmation from the foreign office that Matthew was not working as a spy, this did not stop a court ruling determining a life sentence of 25 years as well as a brutal confiscation of his materials and belongings.
We must therefore turn to the questions, what security procedures are utilised when attributing funding to a PhD proposal or acceptance, if any? It is time that the university carefully consider the position and the power of the country even within what is considered to be one of its allies. It is easy to lose touch of the wider contexts and global issues that exist beyond the realms of academia, and although this is an event which never should have occurred, it is an important creation of a pressing need to re-evaluate and refine security procedures in such proposals dealing with transnational sensitivities in foreign countries that exist beyond our reach. To what degree was this proposal evaluated, questioned and considered? Perhaps not to a great extent; as, as it has been shown, his research in the UAE involved a great risk, a risk which, in the end, he paid with his freedom. The power of the country to save Matthew Hedges from the permanent execution of a life sentence is sadly limited and hence extremely uncertain at this point in time. Even if his case is eventually resolved, what sort of mark does this leave on one’s future? It is crucial to contemplate these issues on an individual level within their wider contexts, instead of attributing the main focus to academic appeal and interest.
Although this issue has many layers of complexity, such as the criticism of academic restriction and the limited information that the country itself may have about the specific security measures in each country, it is better to take precautions rather than to run the risk, especially with the rise of wider global issues such as terrorism and the tightening of security measures in global spheresre to edit.
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