Daniela Tejada, wife of academic Matthew Hedges, speaks about her experience with the FCO. Photograph: Teri Pengilley for the Guardian
On Monday night as Matthew Hedges waited at Dubai airport for a flight back to London ending his six-month ordeal in the United Arab Emirates, his wife, Daniela Tejada, was in an Italian restaurant close to the BBC headquarters, sharing her nervous expectation for a couple of hours with the spouses of other British detainees.
Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, still detained in Tehran, was there, as was Yemi Tsege, the wife of Andy Tsege, released from an Ethiopian jail in May after four years on death row in political detention. Family members of other detainees and former detainees who have chosen to keep their cases private were also present.
Some at the table could recall their joy at their own loved one’s release. Others could only imagine and, in Ratcliffe’s words, “feed off Daniela’s happiness”.
The gathering showed not just the emotional bond that is formed in fighting for the release of a family member, but how much of that fight involves finely balanced judgments about publicity and relations with the UK Foreign Office.
Many family members, as well as the NGOs that work alongside them, have an opinion on how the Foreign Office treats these consular cases, and it is not always flattering.
Ratcliffe, who went public after only 36 days of his wife’s captivity, largely exempts Jeremy Hunt, the new foreign secretary, from his criticism. He said: “Iranians can sense double standards, and the fact that Hunt seems to have made these human rights cases a defining aspects of his foreign secretaryship really helps.”
But he said the Foreign Office had an “institutional bias” for keeping things private. “They do not want publicity. They like softly-softly and say don’t politicise, exacerbate or offend, even to the point of initially struggling to say Nazanin was innocent. They cannot grasp the seriousness of the issue. They would prefer you go away and, like a GP, want to send you off with an aspirin.”Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is still detained in Tehran.
Photograph: Family Handout/PA
Tejada questioned whether the Foreign Office was truly neutral in decisions about a detainee’s family going public. She said: “The FCO say that it is up to every family to decide whether to go public or not. In my experience, however, I wish I had received more support in my decision to do so instead of constantly being made to doubt this was a good option.”
The Hedges campaign was largely co-ordinated by a legal PR, Nikita Bernardi. She said: “Daniela was regularly warned by the Foreign Office against going public, but I am 100% sure that if we had not done so, Matt would not be where he is today.”
Polly Truscott, a foreign affairs expert at Amnesty UK, said: “We do not always recommend going public. It is hard for the family to be in the limelight. The argument is that if we go public the country will dig in its heels, raise the price and and make it harder to get the person out. You are increasing the value of the detainee by politicising it.” There may also be family members in the country that could suffer reprisals.
Maya Foa, the director of Reprieve, which focuses on detainees facing the death penalty, said: “If the Foreign Office says to us ‘don’t do it’, we take it seriously. You don’t discount it even if they have a tendency to say it in all cases. I have said to the Foreign Office: ‘If you or anyone else can give us a credible reason or say something positive is on the move, we will go silent immediately.’”
In some countries, such as China, and in some kinds of cases, such as blasphemy, Foa said her instinct was not to go public.
But the Foreign Office’s faith in private persuasion may be a smokescreen for diplomats to do little, either due to inertia or a considered calculation about the wider national interest.
Ratcliffe said he knew of few families that had not regretted not going public earlier.
In Hedges’s case, the initial consular support seems to have been minimal. Tejeda was told that the Foreign Office could not disclose any information to her about her husband as it would be a breach of the General Data Privacy Regulations, and so a breach of Hedges’s privacy rights. The first meeting between a Foreign Office official and Hedges was largely consumed with asking him to authorise the government to communicate with his wife about his welfare.
This blend of Kafka and PC Plod led Tejada to become so frustrated she sought advice from a lawyer, Rodney Dixon QC, who specialises in human rights cases in the Gulf. His advice was that she should go public.
Tejada had certain advantages, Bernardi said. “Daniela is very intelligent, articulate and strong-willed. She was culturally attuned to the UAE and knew it well.”
Tejeda rejected a campaign pitched at the tabloids and went upmarket. “The aim was to set up a political campaign that was directed at the Foreign Office and not aimed at calling out the UAE itself,” Bernardi explained.
“At no point before going public did Daniela have a meeting with the Foreign Office. They constantly said you cannot have a meeting, but within a few hours of going public they said a meeting could be arranged with Alistair Burt [the Middle East minister].”
Sometimes these campaigns are designed to boost the morale of an isolated prisoner, but Hedges did not know what was being done on his behalf. When he was released on a form of bail in October he was given £1,200 and told to take a taxi to Dubai. “As he left the jail, one of his warders said: ‘Your wife has been very busy,’ and he said: “What does that mean’?’ It was the first time he knew what we had been doing to win his release,” Bernardi said.
The lawyer thinks a combination of the campaign, the activism of Hunt and the UAE’s fear that it might sucked into the same kind of reputational nosedive as Saudi Arabia led to Hedges’ pardon.
But it is not the only time the Foreign Office has soft-pedalled with the UAE. A foreign affairs select committee report in 2014 highlighted complaints from detainees about the Foreign Office’s reluctance to lobby on behalf of families.
Possibly the most egregious case of Foreign Office inertia is that of Andy Tsege, who was kidnapped by the Ethiopian regime in 2014 and forcibly flown to the capital, Addis Ababa. He holds British citizenship, and his partner, Yemi, and their three children are also British and live in the UK.
Reprieve found the government’s handling of the case so supine that in 2016 it sought judicial review to force ministers to demand his release. In an open letter, the then foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said: “Britain does not interfere in the legal systems of other countries by challenging convictions any more than we would accept interference in our judicial system.”
The Foreign Office argued that calling for his release or reducing its commitment to the Ethiopian people would not be helpful and indeed might damage the progress made in gaining consular access for Tsege.
Foa described the letter as disgraceful and said the UK would not apply the doctrine of non-interference in commercial cases.
“Sometimes you have to speak out,” she said. “Andy Tsege was silenced. To give him a voice was to keep him alive, literally and metaphorically.”