On 4 February, Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, who has already spent 70 days detained in Thailand, urged a court in Bangkok to not extradite him to Bahrain. Bahrain seeks his extradition after having sentenced him in absentia to ten years in jail for vandalising a police station in 2014 – the same year Hakeem fled the country and was given refugee status by Australia.
The 25-year-old, now an Australian resident who plays football for a Melbourne club, was arrested on 27 November when he arrived in Bangkok for a honeymoon with his wife. Thai authorities made the arrest on the basis of an Interpol red notice which was issued against the agency’s own policies, which dictate they can’t be issued against refugees on behalf of the countries they fled.
Hakeem told the court he refused to be extradited and told the judge the charges against him were politically motivated, and that he feared persecution for religious reasons and for seeking asylum in Australia. Campaigners from the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) say he is at grave risk of torture if he is deported.
Speaking to CNN, Hakeem implored FIFA, sporting organisations and those working on human rights to help him fight his case. “It is 2019 now, there should be human rights. In Bahrain there is none,” he said. “Please fight for me.”
Hakeem’s appearance in court on 4 February marked the formal beginning of proceedings after Bahrain’s extradition request was formally accepted for consideration by Thailand on 1 February. He was given 60 days to prepare a defence against the attempt to extradite him from Thailand and will remain in a Thai prison for at least another two months after a judge denied him bail and gave his lawyers until 5 April to file a written appeal before the next scheduled hearing, which is due on 22 April.
Hakeem’s wife, who does not want to be named, has called for international leaders to help her husband. “Time is running out, and I am pleading desperately to you as a humanitarian, and someone who would not hesitate to stand with justice, please please help my husband,” she wrote in a letter to leaders in Canada and New Zealand.
The professional football player has received support from a high-profile and extraordinarily unified international campaign which seeks his return to Australia.
Craig Foster, the former Australian Socceroo captain who is spearheading the campaigning to free Hakeem, told CNN that Hakeem is “nothing more than a political prisoner […] This is about retribution from the government and royal family in Bahrain, and all Australians are saying we will not stand for it.”
Allan McKinnon, Australia’s ambassador designate, as well as delegates from other countries and embassies, appeared outside of the court in Bangkok on 4 February as a “coalition of support”, which included representatives of 14 countries and the European Union.
Speaking outside, McKinnon called for the Thai prime minister, Prayut Chan-ocha, to directly intervene to ensure the footballer’s release, after the prosecutor had confirmed he had executive powers to do so.
“We are asking prime minister Prayut to allow Hakeem al-Araibi to return to Australia, he is a refugee, allow him to return to Australia to his friends and his family in the Australian community,” he told reporters.
Thailand is not a signatory to the refugee convention and has a history of sending refugees back to their countries of origin. Last month, amid international outcry about Saudi teenager Rahaf al-Qunun, Thailand’s Immigration Bureau Chief Hakparn pledged the country would no longer return refugees “involuntarily”, but said that did not apply to Hakeem’s case.
Bahrain, which has an extensively documented history of prisoner mistreatment, including an inquiry commissioned by the king which found a number of deaths in custody as a result, has denied Hakeem faces danger.