Hakeem Alaraibi was arrested in 2012 and convicted two years later in absentia on charges of vandalising a police station as part of a government crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests.
The footballer, who said he was playing in a match during the alleged crime, was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017, where he has played for semi-professional club Pascoe Vale FC, according to the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).
But he was detained at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport on Tuesday during a personal trip, rights groups said, fearing he will be sent back to Bahrain on an Interpol red notice, a non-binding request to comply with national arrest warrants.
AFP could not reach Alaraibi on his personal phone number but in a video interview from an airport detention room posted by Australian channel SBS he said he wanted to go back to Australia.
“They want to kill me in Bahrain,” he said.
Thai immigration did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Bahrain, an oil-rich Sunni-led country home to the US fifth fleet, crushed Arab Spring protests by the Shia majority.
Alaraibi says he was beaten in custody and believes he was targeted because he is in the Shiite majority and due to his brother’s political activism.
He also publically opposed the FIFA presidential candidacy for Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling monarchy and the president of the Asian Football Confederation.
Thailand does not recognise refugees but with its lax visa rules, the country often finds itself at the centre geopolitical disputes over them.
Thailand was thrust into the headlines in 2015 for deporting more than 100 Uighur back to China, where the Muslim minority face persecution.
Additionally, dozens of Pakistani Christians have been rounded up in recent weeks as part of a visa overstay crackdown.
Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch, told AFP that “under no circumstances” should Alaraibi be handed over to Bahrain.
“Hakeem is a refugee accepted by Australia, so Thailand should do the right thing by sending him back to Australia on the next flight,” he said, adding that he faces a prison term of up to 10 years in Bahrain.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said he also faces risks of torture.
A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told AFP that embassy officials in Bangkok are in “direct contact with Thai authorities regarding this issue”.