Soccer

Australia government ramps up pressure to free jailed soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi

AP, AFP-JIJI

The Australian government on Tuesday urged Thailand to exercise its legal discretion to free a refugee soccer player who lives and plays in Australia and told a Bangkok court that he refuses to be voluntarily extradited to Bahrain.

Hakeem al-Araibi’s rejection of extradition means a trial will be held to determine whether Thai authorities will send him to Bahrain, where he fears he is at risk of torture, or release him so he can return to Australia.

A chained al-Araibi yelled to reporters outside court as he was escorted by prison guards into Monday’s hearing: “Please speak to Thailand, don’t send me to Bahrain. Bahrain won’t defend me.”

Former Australia national soccer team captain Craig Foster, who has been lobbying for al-Araibi’s release, shouted words of encouragement to the jailed player.

“Your wife sends her love, Hakeem. All of Australia is with you. Be strong. Football is with you,” Foster said.

The sight of a chained al-Araibi inspired Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to second a second letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha following his first correspondence in January.

“I’ve written to him again because I was very disturbed at the appearance of Hakeem at the hearing the other day and he was shackled,” Morrison told Sky News Australia late Tuesday.

“And I thought that was very upsetting and I know it would have upset many Australians. I’m respectfully reminding the Thai prime minister that Australians feel very strongly about this. Very, very strongly.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne reiterated her government’s call for the Thai government to release al-Araibi so he can return home to Australia.

“Thailand’s office of the Attorney-General has publicly confirmed that Thailand’s Extradition Act allows for executive discretion in such cases. This was also confirmed by the prosecutor in the context of yesterday’s hearing,” Payne said in a statement.

She added: “Mr. al-Araibi is a refugee and a permanent resident of Australia and the government remains deeply concerned by his ongoing detention in Thailand.”

Australia continued to advocate on al-Araibi’s behalf at the highest levels in both Thailand and Bahrain, Payne said.

Al-Araibi, 25, a former Bahraini national team player, has said he fled his home country due to political repression. He has been living in Melbourne, where he plays for a semi-professional soccer team.

Bahrain wants him returned to serve a 10-year prison sentence he received in absentia in 2014 for an arson attack that damaged a police station, which he denies.

The renewed push by Australia’s government return comes as retired football players, professional teams and fans have intensified calls for boycotts.

Governing body Football Federation Australia (FFA) on Wednesday cancelled the under-23 men’s team’s plans to hold a training camp and a friendly game in Thailand ahead of the AFC U23 Championship qualifiers in March.

“We reassessed our plans due to the ongoing detainment of Australian footballer Hakeem al-Araibi in a Thai prison,” head coach Graham Arnold said in a statement, adding that the FFA would look for another host country.

“Australia’s national teams are united in their support for Hakeem al-Araibi and we call on the community to continue to campaign for his release.”

Federico Addiechi, a representative of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, also attended Monday’s hearing and said the organization will continue to support al-Araibi.

“FIFA is committed to protecting human rights. It is a commitment enshrined in our human rights policy,” he said.

He said FIFA has not discussed imposing sanctions on either Bahrain or Thailand over the case.