Saudi woman’s case boosts campaigners’ hopes for held footballer

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne arrives in Bangkok to push for footballer Hakeem al-Araibi’s return.

by Max Walden

4 hours ago

A protest in Sydney in support of Hakeem al-Araibi, who has been held in Thailand since November [Yahya Alhadid/ Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights/Al Jazeera]

Melbourne, Australia – Pressure is growing on Thailand to allow detained footballer Hakeem al-Araibi to return to Australia, where he was granted refugee status in 2017 after fleeing Bahrain, following a Saudi woman’s successful campaign to halt efforts to deport her from the Southeast Asian country.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne arrives in Bangkok on Thursday and has said she will push for Araibi’s return to Australia.

“Mr al-Araibi was granted permanent residency by the Australian government in recognition of his status as a refugee,” Payne said in a statement before her departure.

The 25-year-old played for Bahrain’s national team before he fled the country some four years ago saying he had been tortured after being arrested in 2012.

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He was arrested by Thai police in November who said they were acting on an international arrest warrant – known as an Interpol “Red Notice” – issued by Bahrain, when the footballer arrived in Thailand for his honeymoon.

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Saudi teen detained in Thailand fears deportation (1:31)

“Australia has an extra responsibility to move heaven and earth to get Hakeem back to Australia, precisely because Australian police were the ones to tip off the Thai authorities that there was this Interpol Red Notice,” Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera.

The renewed interest in Araibi’s case comes after Saudi asylum seeker Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, found herself facing deportation from Bangkok airport on Sunday. Alqunun, who said she risked death at the hands of her family if she were returned to Saudi Arabia, took to social media to press her case attracting global media attention as she frantically demanded to see the officials from the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Thai authorities eventually admitted Alqunun into the country and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognised her as a refugee. Australia has said it will consider her case for asylum.

“Great news that Thailand has allowed the UN to assess Rahaf rather than sending her back to the country from which she was seeking asylum,” tweeted Radha Stirling, a human rights lawyer and CEO of advocacy group Detained in Dubai. “Thailand needs to allow Hakeem to return to Australia (and) stop Bahrain’s legal abuse.”

Hakeem al-Araibi played as part of the Bahrain national team before he fled his country and found asylum in Australia [Supplied/Al Jazeera]

Sydney protest

Araibi’s lawyer Nadthasiri Bergman says he has “held up very well” in detention.

The lawyer said that she has been able to pass messages back to his wife in Australia, as he cannot use a phone or email in jail.

“The only way they can [communicate with people outside] is to write a letter,” she said. “If it’s in Thai, it will take about two weeks; in English or any other language it’s even longer.”

On Thursday, protesters will gather in front of the Sydney Opera House to highlight the footballer’s prolonged detention. While Payne will be in Thailand, the demonstration also coincides with an AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Asian Cup match between Thailand and Bahrain, which is taking place in the United Arab Emirates.

“We will be protesting to demand serious and immediate steps from the AFC, Thailand and Bahrain to guarantee Hakeem’s safety,” Fatima Yazbek, a spokesperson for the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (GIDHR), the event’s organiser, told Al Jazeera.

“We think that without the pressure and the media and the football community, the Australian government wouldn’t do much.”

According to HRW’s Pearson, Thailand has a record of working with authoritarian governments to return citizens who are at risk in those countries.

“They’ve done so in the past with China,” she said. “I believe they have also done so in the past with Bahrain.” In 2015, Bangkok deported some 100 people from the persecuted Uighur Muslim minority to China at the request of Beijing.

Football diplomacy

The football community in Australia has also intensified its lobbying efforts on behalf of Araibi, who was playing for a local Melbourne club before he was detained.

“It’s been wonderful to see the football community respond to Hakeem’s situation and continue to advocate for one of their own,” John Didulica, chief executive officer of Professional Footballers Australia, said in a video posted on social media.

Pressure on world football’s governing body FIFA, the AFC and the governments of Bahrain and Thailand needed to continue, he said.

Hakeem al-Araibi on the field for Pascoe Vale, a team in Australia’s second-biggest city [Mark Avellino Photography/Al Jazeera]

For Pearson, Araibi’s case is a test for FIFA’s human rights policy, which it adopted in mid-2017. While the body has called for Thailand to return Araibi to Australia, Pearson says they could be doing more.

She would like to see FIFA send a high-level delegation to Bangkok to meet Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and press for Araibi’s release, highlight his case globally and mobilise players and clubs to voice their support.

“FIFA is extremely influential and it needs to put its human rights policy into practice if it is serious about protecting human rights,” she said.

The organisation released a statement in support of Araibi on Wednesday evening, calling for the “humane and speedy resolution” of the case.

Araibi’s lawyer says she is confident that the footballer can be returned to Australia, but warned the process could take as long as a year.

“We have to respect the Thai government,” Bergman said. “They listen to the media, messages like ‘if you send Rahaf back to Saudi Arabia, she will be in danger’,” she said referencing what had happened with Alqunun. “If we are looking at a case like [Araibi’s], I think there is a possibility of a good outcome.”

“Let’s hope that the change of heart that the Thai government has had in Rahaf’s case equally applies in Hakeem’s case,” Pearson said.

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