Bahraini soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi scored the most critical, albeit symbolic, goal of his life today when Thai authorities released him from prison and dropped the extradition case against him. The 25-year-old refugee catapulted to global attention when he was detained by Thai authorities at the Bangkok Airport Nov. 27, upon demand from the Bahraini government. Bahrain had obtained an Interpol Red Notice warrant for Araibi's arrest, even though Interpol proscribes such action against refugees on behalf of their home countries. The Australian government was sharply criticized for passing along the notice to the Thai authorities prior to Araibi's arrival. Araibi had come to Thailand with his wife for a long-delayed honeymoon.
The Thai government has been under intense pressure to free Araibi. Araibi said he would face torture if sent back to Bahrain, as he is a member of the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom’s repressed Shiite majority. His appearance in a Thai court last week, shackled at the ankles, provoked further outcry.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, former Australia soccer captain Craig Foster, and FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, helped spearhead a noisy campaign to secure Araibi’s freedom. He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for supposedly vandalizing a police station, even as he was competing in a match that was being broadcast live at the time. Araibi said the government was using him as a scapegoat for his brother's political activism.
Foster took to Twitter to express his joy: “Many wonderful people stepped forward to help Hakeem. They all deserve to be in front of camera now, not only me.”
Bahraini activist Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei, who fled his country during the Arab Spring protests, told Al-Monitor, “This is a huge victory for the human rights movement in Bahrain, Thailand and Australia, and even the whole world. It gives Bahraini people hope and strength, that their suffering will end.”
Aya Majzoub, Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor that this victory “is a result of principled, sustained advocacy by the human rights movement, the soccer community and concerned citizens all over the world who united their voices to save Hakeem. His release today shows that public pressure can make a real difference.”
Majzoub added, “We will continue channeling this global outrage over Bahrain’s human rights record to call for the quashing of charges and release of other prisoners unjustly convicted due to their willingness to call out Bahrain on its abuses, including Nabeel Rajab, who is serving a five-year sentence as a result of his tweets.”
Thai authorities dropped the case after Bahrain decided it no longer wanted to pursue the extradition, according to a Thai official quoted by the Guardian newspaper.
The U-turn followed yesterday’s meeting in Manama between Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai. “Clearly the visit by the Thai foreign minister was aimed to secure diplomatic resolution on Hakeem’s case. It became a mass embarrassment for Thailand to justify his unlawful detention,” Wadaei said.
Australia granted Araibi refugee status in 2014. In 2012, Araibi was jailed in Bahrain and allegedly tortured when he took part in anti-government protests. He drew further ire when he criticized Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a Bahraini royal, who was nearly elected FIFA president. Sheikh Salman allegedly oversaw the torture of Bahraini soccer players who took part in demonstrations against Bahrain’s rulers. He is now vice president of FIFA.
Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged Araibi’s release in a statement, yet noted that "the guilty verdict against Mr. Al Araibi remains in place and Mr. Al Araibi holds the right to appeal this court verdict at Bahrain’s Court of Appeal. The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr. Al Araibi.”