Hakeem Al-Araibi: Thailand to free Bahraini footballer

Helen Davidson

The Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi is set to return to Australia after Thai authorities withdrew an extradition case against him.

The surprise decision on Monday ends more than 70 days of detention and international outcry over Bahrain’s attempts to return the 25-year-old dissident refugee.

The Guardian has been told by Gulf democracy advocates and al-Araibi’s Thai lawyer that the Thai government has pulled the extradition case out of the courts.

Al-Araibi was jailed and beaten in Bahrain during a crackdown on pro-democracy athletes. He fled the country in 2014 before being granted permanent residence in Australia, where he has lived since. He was later sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail over an act of vandalism he maintains he could not have committed because he was playing in a televised football match.

He travelled to Bangkok for a honeymoon with his wife but was arrested on arrival on 27 November, after Bahrain obtained an Interpol red notice arrest warrant, even though Interpol policy dictates that red notices cannot be issued against refugees on behalf of the countries they fled.

Al-Araibi has spent more than 70 days in detention, as an international scandal developed and Bahrain stood firm in its allegations against al-Araibi and denial of all accusations of human rights abuses.

Australia repeatedly demanded his return, and as pressure increased on Thailand its foreign ministry released a statement last week saying it held no responsibility for the situation and the two nations had to sort it out between themselves.

The case has raised numerous serious questions about the practices of Interpol and Australian agencies that allowed Bahrain to use international law enforcement to chase down a refugee. The Australian federal police, acting as the local bureau of Interpol, notified Thailand that al-Araibi was subject to a red notice and on his way to them, without also saying he was a refugee afforded Australian protection.

Craig Foster, the former Australian football captain and commentator who has spearheaded the campaign to free al-Araibi, said the most important thing was his immediate wellbeing.

“I am sure that embassy staff will take care of him. There’ll be tears there tonight, as there are in our household right now,” he said.