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Hakeem al-Araibi: Thailand frees refugee footballer

A football player and refugee whose detention in Thailand sparked an outcry has been freed from jail after Bahrain withdrew its extradition request.

Hakeem al-Araibi, who is a Bahraini citizen, fled to Australia in 2014 and was granted political asylum.

He was detained in Bangkok in November on an Interpol notice requested by Bahrain. He had travelled to the Thai capital on honeymoon.

He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years for vandalising a police station.

Al-Araibi, 25, denies the charges. Human rights activists say he could face torture if sent back to Bahrain, where he was a vocal critic of the authorities.

His case has been taken up by high-profile footballers, with stars including Didier Drogba and Jamie Vardy calling for his release. The Australian government, football’s international governing body Fifa and the International Olympic Committee all lobbied Thailand.

Thailand’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) asked the court to end proceedings against al-Araibi because Bahrain had said it no longer wanted him, officials told BBC Thai on Monday.

“This morning the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed us that Bahrain was no longer interested in this request,” OAG foreign office chief Chatchom Akapin said.

Al-Araibi is expected to leave Thailand on Monday evening for Australia.

Bahrain’s foreign ministry said that despite the end of the extradition proceedings, the footballer’s conviction still stood. “The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr al-Araibi,” it added.

The Thai foreign minister was in Bahrain over the weekend for an official visit and met senior leaders.

Bahrain’s foreign ministry on Monday said that despite the end of the extradition proceedings, the footballer’s conviction still stood. “The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr al-Araibi,” it added.

Craig Foster, a former Australian national football captain and TV host who spearheaded the campaign to free al-Araibi, said there were “tears” in his household “right now”.

There had been criticism that football bodies, including Fifa, had not initially lobbied strongly enough on behalf of al-Araibi. Mr Foster and world players’ union FIFPro had urged Fifa to threaten sporting sanctions against Bahrain and Thailand.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra that he thanked Bangkok for “listening to the issues” Australia had raised.

“Now the next step is for him to return home. But as it always is in these cases, people aren’t home until they’re home,” he said.

Al-Araibi plays for Pascoe Vale FC in Melbourne.

Last month, his wife told the BBC that extradition would put him in danger.

“I’m calling on every country to help Hakeem because I know if he gets taken back, he will be tortured, and he will be killed,” she said.

But Bahrain said al-Araibi had been sentenced by an independent judiciary “on charges involving serious violence and criminality, unrelated to any possible freedom of opinion/expression issues”.

It said his safety would be “guaranteed” if he returned to Bahrain to appeal against the sentence.

Supporters hold #SaveHakeem posters in Melbourne on 1 FebruaryImage copyrightEPA
Image captionHakeem’s arrest caused an outcry in Australia

Human rights activists lauded Monday’s news.

“This is a huge victory for the human rights movement in Bahrain, Thailand and Australia, and even the whole world,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, London-based campaign group.

“Hakeem’s ordeal ended after 70 days when there was a clear public stance and solidarity movement. The football community, the human rights movement and all of those who dedicated their time and efforts to end this injustice were rewarded.”

BBC

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