Rights groups are urging Thai authorities not to deport a Bahraini professional soccer player, who now lives in Melbourne, to his homeland to face imprisonment for what his supporters say are political reasons.
The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy says Hakeem Ali Mohamed Ali AlAraibi was tortured after a 2012 arrest. In 2014 he fled to Australia, which granted him political asylum last year.
He had played for Bahrain’s national soccer team and now plays for Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale Football Club.
He has been publicly critical of Bahrain’s royal family’s alleged involvement in sports scandals.
The London-based group says Mr AlAraibi was detained on Tuesday (local time) at Bangkok’s airport on the basis of an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request. The notice says he is sought because he was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalising a police station, a charge he denies.
He says he was playing a match that was televised live when the alleged crime occurred, but when his family members reached out to Bahrain’s soccer association to confirm his alibi, their requests went unanswered.
Rights groups say Interpol’s Red Notice — which is a request to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition — violates the international police organisation’s policy that the notices will not be issued “if the status of refugee or asylum-seeking has been confirmed”.
In a statement, Detained in Dubai CEO Radha Stirling said Bahrain was using Interpol for its own political ends.
“This case serves to highlight what has become habitual abuse of the Interpol system by Gulf countries; and more broadly, it reveals severe systemic flaws in the way Interpol operates,” he said.
Political persecution in Bahrain
A visa granted by the Australian Government was supposed to allow Mr AlAraibi to remain in Australia indefinitely and to travel to and from Australia without having to travel to Bahrain, the country he has sought protection from.
“Hakeem is a refugee accepted by Australia, so Thailand should do the right thing by sending him back to Australia on the next flight,” said Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Thailand.
“Under no circumstances should Thai immigration authorities hand him over to Bahrain, where he faces 10 years in prison on a politically motivated conviction and a repeat of the torture he experienced before he fled.
“Sending him back to Bahrain would be a heartless act that violates Thailand’s obligations to protect refugees and will surely result in global condemnation,” Mr Phasuk said.
No comment was immediately available from Thai or Australian officials.
Mr AlAraibi has said he was blindfolded and had his legs beaten while he was held in Bahrain.
He said he believed he was targeted for arrest because of his Shiite faith and because his brother was politically active in Bahrain.
Bahrain has a Shiite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy.
According to the latest US State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices, Bahrain’s most significant human rights issues in 2017 “included reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings by security forces; allegations of torture of detainees and prisoners; harsh and potentially life-threatening conditions of detention; arbitrary arrest and detention [and] political prisoners,” as well as limits on other freedoms and Shiite political participation.
‘I live in Australia’
“Hakeem made brave interventions to expose the role of powerful members of the Bahraini royal family in sporting scandals,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
“Interpol has violated its obligations, as Hakeem holds refugee status, and returning him to Bahrain puts him at significant risk of torture and imprisonment.”
SBS reported Mr AlAraibi told them that he fears being returned to Bahrain.
“It’s very dangerous there [for me],” he said.
“In Bahrain, they want to kill me.
“I told [Thai Immigration] I [didn’t] come from Bahrain, I have an Australian travel document.
“Bahrain is not my country now,” Mr AlAraibi said. “I live in Australia.”
The chairman of Pascoe Vale Football Club, Lou Tona, said the club hoped Mr AlAraibi would be able to return to Australia.
“He was a respectful kid, a respectful person and respected within the team mates,” Mr Tona told the ABC.
“He never got out of line, he’s just a quiet unassuming character.
“I just hope that him and his wife are OK.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Australian embassy officials in Bangkok were in direct contact with Thai authorities about the issue.