Refugee footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi arrives in Australia after Bahrain extradition case dropped

Posted at 8:50 PM, Feb 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-12 04:52:12-05

Refugee footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi has landed in Australia, after spending two months in a Thai jail fighting extradition to his birth nation of Bahrain.

On Tuesday morning local time, the 25-year-old arrived at Melbourne Airport, where he thanked the Australian government, his supporters and campaigners who had worked to secure his release.

“It’s amazing to see all of the people here and all of the Australian people and all of the media who supported me,” he said. “This is my country. I didn’t (get) citizenship yet, but my country is Australia. I will die in Australia and I love Australia.”

Al-Araibi was met at the airport by former Australian national football team captain Craig Foster, who had spearheaded an international campaign for his release.

“This is a win for humanity, for the power of citizens of the world demanding that human rights be protected,” Foster said in a statement.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the Thai government’s decision to release Al-Araibi on Monday, after Bahrain dropped its extradition request in a shock move.

“We know all Australians will deeply appreciate the decision, allowing him to return to his wife, family and friends,” he said in a statement.

Bahrain national Al-Araibi was arrested at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on November 27, after arriving in the Southeast Asian country for a vacation with his wife.

An international warrant had been issued for his arrest, despite the fact red notice requests are not meant to apply to refugees.

Detained despite ironclad alibi

In 2012, Al-Araibi was arrested and detained in Bahrain for three months, accused of vandalizing a police station during a protest. He told CNN that he was released because he presented evidence that he was playing soccer live on TV when the protest happened.

Two years later, Al-Araibi was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for the vandalism charge. The footballer, who has been openly critical of the Bahraini government and its record on human rights, fled to Australia, where he was granted refugee status in 2017. He now plays for semi-professional Melbourne-based club Pascoe Vale.

Al-Araibi said he feared he would be tortured and killed should he be handed over to Bahrain by the Thai authorities.

“I am afraid to go back,” he told CNN during an interview from a Thai prison on February 4. “Please fight for me.”

Human Rights Watch, which had campaigned on Al-Araibi’s behalf, said the Bahraini government’s claim that there would be no threat to his life if he were to be returned to his home country “would have been laughable were it not so tragic.”

Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by local media on Tuesday that Al-Araibi’s guilty verdict would remain in place despite the decision to drop its extradition case.

“The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr. Al-Araibi,” the statement read.