Support grows to free Hakeem Al-Araibi

Sports stars, trade unionists, the Bahraini community, human rights organisations and politicians gathered in Melbourne on February 1 to demand that Araibi be freed from a Thai prison. Photo: Sue Bolton

The campaign to stop the refoulment of refugee Hakeem al-Araibi from Thailand to Bahrain is growing, with many football authorities taking a stand.

Sports stars, trade unionists, the Bahraini community, human rights organisations and politicians gathered in Melbourne and Sydney on February 1 to demand that Araibi be freed from a Thai prison.

Meanwhile, the Bahraini government has formally lodged a request to extradite Araibi from Thailand to Bahrain to face trumped up charges. If this happens, his life will be in danger.

Araibi is a semi-professional footballer and former member of the Bahraini national football team. He was arrested after landing in Thailand last November for his honeymoon. While the Interpol red alert was first issued by Bahrain, it was Australian authorities who notified the Thai government of its existence.

This all happened despite Araibi having been given refugee status in Australia. According to the Bahraini community in Melbourne, the Australian authorities said at the time that they were not responsible for Araibi because he was only a permanent resident, and not a citizen.

It is also assumed that Australia did not inform Thailand that Araibi was a refugee at the time of his arrest. This is despite him being granted refugee status on the basis of his imprisonment and torture in Bahrain in 2012.

The February 1 protests were timed to coincide with the Asian Cup Final at which Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president, was handing out the finalists’ medals.

Khalifa was responsible for jailing Bahraini athletes after the 2011 pro-democracy uprising. He is responsible for Araibi sitting in a Thai jail now.

As Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) president Michele O’Neil told the Melbourne protest: “We criticise our government all the time. This is all that Hakeem did. How horrific that Hakeem has spent [all these days] in detention for criticising the Bahraini government.”

Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) John Didulica added his support to calls by former Socceroo captain Craig Foster to suspend Bahrain from future international games.

Didulica said if getting Hakeem freed means suspending Bahrain from all future international events then “this must happen”.

“You cannot have the privileges of the international community if you are not prepared to live by its rules of behaviour, by its standards.

“Seeking the refoulement of a refugee is a clear repudiation of Bahrain’s obligations as a member of the international community.”

Since Bahrain’s extradition notice, the PFA has called on leading football authorities to consider sporting sanctions on the two countries.

It said FIFA, the AFC and the International Olympic Committee should consider sporting sanctions against Thailand and Bahrain following the outcome of the February 6 court hearing for Araibi in Bangkok, in which he was refused bail.

Araibi’s defence team have until April to mount a defence against his extradition to Bahrain.

The pressure on authorities is mounting. Football Federation Australia announced on February 5 that it had pulled out of a planned Olyroos training camp in Thailand. The training camp will now be held in another Asian country.

There has also been a public backlash against the Melbourne Rebels’ sponsorship deal with Thai Airways, announced the day after a shackled Araibi appeared in a Bangkok court. The club apologised to its supporters for the timing, though it added that it has decided to keep the sponsorship deal.

In the 1970s, the imposition of an international sports boycott against South Africa played an important role in helping bring down the Apartheid regime.

Araibi’s arrest and detention is galvanising new sectors of the community to scrutinise the government’s refugee policy.

On January 24, more than 30 Australian athletes from across the sporting spectrum sent a letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison asking him to urgently intervene to support Araibi. Since then, many clubs and their supporters have made their support for the government to urgently act to get Araibi released very visible at games.

In another positive development, Thai footballers have also started calling for Araibi’s release. The Chiang Rai United Football Club is supporting Hakeem.

While the Thai government is trying to blame Australia, a former Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya has said that the Thai government has the discretion to stop the extradition proceedings and release Araibi.

Australia could also step up the campaign. As the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on February 6: “Thailand had previously not been aware of Mr Hakeem’s case and does not have any prejudice against him.

“Indeed, we would not have become involved in the issue had we not received the Red Notice alert from the Australian Interpol and the subsequent formal request by Bahrain for his arrest and extradition.”

Australia is culpable for alerting Thai authorities to an illegal Interpol arrest warrant when such warrants are not allowed to be issued for refugees. The red alert was withdrawn in early December and now the Thai authorities must release Hakeem.

As O’Neil said on January 20, the Australian union movement “will not accept this kind of treatment of any of our members”.

The ACTU wants Araibi released immediately, but it is also calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the circumstances around his detention and the role Australian authorities played.

“It’s not acceptable for Australian government authorities to help repressive regimes get their hands on people they wish to torture and unfairly detain, and we need to make sure it never happens again,” O’Neil said.

It is possible that Araibi will be in jail until August, unless the international campaign can free him before then.