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FFA criticised for response to Melbourne refugee facing extradition to Bahrain

Updated 

Two weeks after the he was first detained, Football Federation Australia has released its first public statement on the plight of a Melbourne refugee and footballer who fears being tortured if he is extradited from Thailand to Bahrain.

But the FFA appears not to have made contact with its counterparts in Bahrain, despite the head of the Asian Football Confederation, which Australia is part of, being a member of Bahrain’s ruling royal family.

Key points:

  • Hakeem AlAraibi claims he was tortured in Bahrain, was granted asylum in Australia last year
  • He is currently detained in Thailand facing extradition to Bahrain
  • Football Federation Australia says it has been in touch with the Australian Government and the Thai ambassador about Mr AlAraibi’s plight

Hakeem AlAraibi, a former member of Bahrain’s national soccer team, said he was tortured by the country’s authorities as a result of his involvement in Arab Spring protests.

He was granted asylum in Australia last year, and was advised by Australian officials that his refugee status would make it safe for him to travel.

But when he arrived at Bangkok Airport at the start of his honeymoon late last month, he was detained at the request of Bahrain, where he has been convicted in absentia of vandalising a police station.

It is a charge he strongly denies.

Mr AlAraibi, who remains in custody in Thailand despite being cleared to return home, could learn his fate tomorrow.

Both the Australian Government and football’s world governing body, FIFA, expressed concerns over the plight of Mr AlAraibi, who last week told the ABC he feared for his life.

Werribee City FC@FCWerribeeCity

Hakeem needs the support from as many clubs as possible! Bring him back home.

Pascoe Vale FC@pvfc_official

BREAKING #SaveHakeem Thailand is set to send Hakeem back to Bahrain. The Thai Government has denied him access to a lawyer. Hakeem has sent his family and friends including the club a message in what might be his last. NPL Victoria Football… https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/world/asia/this-might-be-my-last-message-thailand-set-to-deport-australian-refugee-20181207-p50krp.html 

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FFA did not publicly comment on the matter until today, when it said in a statement that it had written to the Australian Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, to express its support for Mr AlAraibi and had been in regular contact with the Australian Government over his fate.

FFA said it had separately written to Thailand’s ambassador to Australia “to formally express a desire for Mr AlAraibi to be returned safely to Australia”.

It said a copy of this letter was also provided to the Football Association of Thailand.

Bonita Mersiades — the FFA whistleblower who was formerly its head of corporate and public affairs — earlier suggested to the ABC that FFA was playing politics over his case rather than dealing with the issue on its merits.

She said the fact that the head of the Asian Football Confederation, Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, is also part of Bahrain’s ruling royal family, put the FFA in a difficult position.

Following the release of the FFA’s statement, she raised concerns that FFA had not contacted Bahraini football or government organisations.

“Australia, Bahrain and Thailand are all members of the Asian Football Confederation and it is noteworthy that FFA has raised Mr Al-Araibi’s case with the Thai [football association] but not with their Bahraini counterparts,” she said.

“We can only trust that there is a valid reason why FFA has failed to raise this matter with the Bahrain football authorities, otherwise it could be seen as a matter of Asian football politics trumping the international legal rights of a local football player with refugee status.”

Earlier today, she told the ABC the FFA’s reaction to the issue was a test of its values.

“What’s more important — Asian football politics or standing up for the rights of a person who has bona fide refugee status in this country? That either means something or it doesn’t,” she said.

“As a member of the Asian Football Confederation, we should be expressing our views about issues when they come up.

She said it was important for FFA to speak out on the issue.

“We have values in football, we have values of fair play and of integrity and standing up for human rights and it’s important that we express those and make them known.”

Mr AlAraibi’s club has also been concerned and confused by the FFA’s public silence on the case.

“I can’t understand it,” Lou Tona, chairman of the Pascoe Vale Football Club, the second-tier team where Mr AlAraibi played, said this morning.

“Our government has come out in support of him, the players’ union has, FIFA has.

“We can’t understand why the FFA hasn’t [until now].”

‘If they delay any longer, they may not have time’

Human Rights Watch’s director of global initiatives, Minky Worden, said FIFA made a strong commitment to protect human rights in recent years.

“FIFA has a human rights policy now and it governs all of football. And what it says is that all of the actors in the ecosystem of football have an obligation to defend basic human rights.

“The FFA is in a position to be heard and to be influential, and they have a clear obligation to do so.”

She said the decision on his extradition could come tomorrow.

“He’s scared to death. He’s part of the football family.

“Every actor that has leverage at this point needs to be using it.”

Australia pushes for return

The Australian Government is applying pressure on Thai authorities for Mr AlAraibi’s “immediate return”.

“I have raised the matter with my Thai counterpart, His Excellency Mr Don Pramudwinai, requesting that Thailand allow Mr AlAraibi to return to Australia as soon as possible,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said.

“Returning Mr AlAraibi to Bahrain, from where he fled, would contravene his rights under international human rights law.”

Thailand is not a signatory to the United Nation Convention of Refugees, and has a poor record when it comes to deporting refugees and asylum seekers back to countries where they face danger.

“The fact that the Thai Government is even considering the extradition request from the Bahrain Government is deeply disgraceful,” said Sussi Prapakranant, programme officer at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network.

A small group has been protesting outside the Thai embassy in Melbourne to try to save Mr AlAraibi.

“We fear Hakeem will be taken back to Bahrain and very bad things would happen to Hakeem,” one of the protesters, Abdulla Alabed, said.

“Bahrain Government over there are very bad on human rights.

“If he is sent back he will face a lot of things, so many scenarios — he will be tortured or killed.”

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