Bahrain refugee soccer player freed by Thailand, heads home

BANGKOK — A refugee soccer player was freed by Thailand and left on a flight to Australia early Tuesday after prosecutors said they were no longer seeking his extradition to Bahrain in a case that has drawn worldwide attention.

Thailand had come under great pressure from Australia's government, sporting bodies and human rights groups to send Hakeem al-Araibi back to Australia, where he has refugee status and plays semi-professional soccer. Aal-Araibi's lawyer Nadthasiri Bergman and Thai Immigration Police chief Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn both said he left Thailand shortly after midnight, on a scheduled flight taking him directly to his Australian hometown of Melbourne.

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Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she looked forward to seeing al-Araibi back in Australia.

"It has been a complex process and has taken a great deal of communication and engagement, but we have an outcome, and I think for Hakeem al-Araibi and for the many who have supported him that is the most important thing," Payne said in Canberra.

Thai prosecutors on Monday submitted a request to a court to withdraw the case to extradite al-Araibi to Bahrain, where he faces a 10-year prison sentence for an arson attack that damaged a police station. He has denied those charges and says the case is politically motivated.

Prosecutors made the decision after Thailand's foreign ministry sent their department a letter Monday indicating that Bahrain had withdrawn its request for al-Araibi, said Chatchom Akapin, the director general of the attorney general office's international affairs department.

Officials in Bahrain, an island kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia that's home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, said the country "reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against" al-Araibi.

Bahrain's Foreign Ministry said in a statement after his release 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."

It did not elaborate.

Al-Araibi, 25, a former Bahraini national team player, says he fled Bahrain due to political repression and that he fears torture if he returns. He has been living in Melbourne.

He has said he was blindfolded and had his legs beaten while he was held in Bahrain previously. He said he believed he was targeted for arrest because of his Shiite faith and because his brother was politically active in Bahrain. Bahrain has a Shiite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy.

His supporters had said he should be freed and was protected under his status as a refugee with Australian residency. He was detained at the request of Bahrain relayed through Interpol upon his arrival in Bangkok in November while on a honeymoon with his wife.

Activists praised Monday's developments.

"This is a huge victory for the human rights movement in Bahrain, Thailand and Australia — and even the whole world," said Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. "Hakeem's ordeal ended after 70 days when there was a clear public stance and solidarity movement."

Former Australia national team captain Craig Foster, who has been leading the campaign for al-Araibi's release, praised all those who worked on its behalf.

"Many wonderful people stepped forward to help Hakeem," he wrote Monday in comments on Twitter. "They all deserve to be in front of camera now, not only me. I can't list them, but will thank each of them in time. My thoughts are with Hakeem's wife. Her nightmare will shortly be at an end. Our prayers answered."

It was not immediately clear what prompted Bahrain to withdraw its request.

The state-run Bahrain News Agency reported Sunday that Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa had a phone conversation with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, but offered no specifics on their discussions.

Separately, BNA said Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa met Sunday with Thailand's foreign minister who was visiting the island. Again, no specifics were provided.

Thailand's foreign ministry said in a statement last week that al-Araibi was detained because Australian authorities had forwarded them an Interpol Red Notice that Bahrain was seeking his arrest. Australian police acknowledged doing so, but there have been questions raised about why the Red Notice appeared to have been issued just before al-Araibi departed on his trip, and whether Bahraini authorities had been tipped off about his travel plans.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had in recent weeks spoken out strongly on behalf of al-Araibi's freedom.

"What we would like to do tonight is to thank and show our appreciation to the Thai government for the decision that they have taken today," he said Monday. "We greatly respect the process that they have had to work through and we greatly appreciate their listening to the issues that have been raised by our government and many others who have raised this case."

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Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai and Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

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