UAE's insistence on Hedges' guilt sustains Emirates Lit Fest boycott

UAE's insistence on Hedges' guilt sustains Emirates Lit Fest boycott

Jailed academic Matthew Hedges, whose life sentence for spying provoked the withdrawal of several authors from Dubai's Emirates Festival of Literature, has been pardoned. However, historian Antony Beevor is still refusing to attend the literary festival because of the UAE's continued insistence on Hedges' guilt. 

Pardoned by the president following a request for clemency from his family and warnings from the UK government of "serious diplomatic consequences", Hedges was released from prison and left the UAE on Monday.

But whereas Hedges says he was researching the country's security strategy for his PhD at Durham University, the UAE maintains he is guilty of espionage. The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, said his release was agreed in consideration of "the historical relationship and close ties between the UAE and the UK" and "to return our focus to the underlying fundamental strength of the UAE UK bi-lateral relationship and its importance to the international community".

Authors including Beevor, Sabine Durrant and Lissa Evans last week rescinded their acceptance of invitations to Dubai's literary festival, due to be held in March (1st - 9th), in protest against Hedges' sentencing. While it is not clear whether all will continue to stay clear of the festival over the issue now he has been pardoned, Beevor, who recently called on all invited authors to consider their positions carefully, confirmed he would not be changing his stance.

Beevor told The Bookseller: "I've corresponded with the director of the festival and I wish them the best of luck with it. But, considering the way in which the Emerati authorities are still insisting on his guilt, I still find it rather difficult to go. So I'm not going ... I'm sure others will probably decide to go; of course, it's entirely up to the individual."

It is not the first time the festival has found itself at the centre of controversy. In 2016, a campaign called Think Twice headed by author Jonathan Emmett and blogger Zoe Toft urged fellow writers not to attend because of the UAE's record on human rights and the event's sponsorship by the government-owned Emirates Airline it argued was "actively undermining efforts to avert climate catastrophe".

After a statement released last week in which it stressed the importance of "always keeping an open dialogue", the Emirates Festival of Literature has declined to comment further.