Prime Minister Scott Morrison has intervened in the plight of Hakeem al-Araibi, urging his Thai counterpart to stop the Melbourne-based refugee footballer’s extradition to Bahrain and release him from detention.
Mr Morrison wrote to Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha several days ago, emphasising the case was a matter of importance to him personally, as well as the Australian government and the Australian people.
It is understood that Mr Morrison noted that Mr al-Araibi had a permanent protection visa issued by the Australian government, that the government issued those visas only after a deliberate and considered process, and that Australia considered him a refugee.
Mr al-Araibi, who fled Bahrain to Australia in 2014 and was granted refugee status in late 2017, travelled to Thailand for a one-week honeymoon with his wife in November, but was detained by authorities. He now faces being returned to Bahrain where he fears he will be tortured and jailed.
Mr Morrison also said in his letter that the Australian government believed that returning the footballer to Bahrain would infringe his rights under international human rights law – the very reason he was granted a permanent protection visa by Australia.
A former member of the Bahrain national football team, Mr al-Araibi plays semi-professional soccer for the Pascoe Vale Football Club in Melbourne.
In an interview with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald inside Bangkok’s Remand Prison, Mr al-Araibi spoke about his hopes of starting a family, his desire for freedom, how he misses his adopted city of Melbourne and his fear he will be tortured if he is extradited to Bahrain.
“I don’t know why Thailand holds me. Where are my human rights? Why am I here? I am just a footballer, I am young, I don’t know why they keep me,” he said.
“I have to be strong, I miss my wife, I love her, two years ago we were married. She came to Australia because of me.
“I want to have a family. I am thinking about my wife all the time. I want children, we want children, I am 25 now, maybe when I am 28.
“Please Australia, keep fighting for me. I pay taxes, I play football, I love Australia. Please don’t let them send me back to Bahrain.”
It was reported late on Tuesday that Thailand has officially received a request from Bahrain to extradite the soccer player.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks said Bahrain filed an extradition request for Mr al-Araibi on Monday that has been forwarded to prosecutors for deliberation.
Mr al-Araibi’s wife has also written to request assistance from the Prime Ministers of Canada and New Zealand, saying “time is running out” for her husband.
“Please call upon the Thai authorities to release my husband so that he can return back to our home in Australia. I am terrified that the final decision to deport him will take place within the next few days,” she wrote.
Mr al-Araibi was detained at Bangkok airport after Australian authorities controversially informed their Thai counterparts the refugee footballer was the subject to an Interpol Red Notice.
This occurred despite Mr al-Araibi checking with Australian authorities before he left the country that he would face no legal risks by leaving the country that had granted him asylum.
A Red Notice is a form of international arrest warrant and refugees such Araibi are not supposed to be subject to them when they are issued by the country from which they have fled.
Mr al-Araibi said he was tortured by authorities in Bahrain in 2012. He was sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalising a Bahraini police station, which he denies.
The sportsman argued he was playing in a soccer match for his team Al-Shabab, which was broadcast on live TV at the time of the alleged incident.
In 2016, Mr al-Araibi, a Shia Muslim, accused Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a Sunni Muslim who is the president of the Asian Football Confederation and a member of Bahrain’s royal family, of discriminating against Shia.
Mr al-Araibi said he believed Bahrain was seeking his extradition because of his public criticism of Salman, which came as Salman was bidding to be FIFA president – a bid he lost.
The Australian soccer community, led by former Socceroo Craig Foster, has rallied behind Mr al-Araibi. The International Olympic Committee and FIFA have also rallied to his cause, supporting his quest to be released and returned to Australia.
During the short interview with Mr al-Araibi, conducted through prison bars in a crowded visitors room, he spoke movingly about his life in Australia.
“I live in Bundoora, it’s a very nice place. I miss it, we work near there. I miss Bundoora, I miss Pascoe Vale Football Club, I miss my club, my boys,” he said.
“I miss the sky, I miss the weather, I miss Melbourne, I miss the restaurants. I am losing hope but I have to stay strong because so many people are fighting for me.”
In a statement on Tuesday night, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Australia remained “deeply concerned by the ongoing detention of Mr Hakeem Ali al-Araibi”.
“The Australian government is calling on the Thai government not to extradite Mr al-Araibi to Bahrain and instead release him home to Australia to be with his friends and family.
“The Thai and Bahraini governments are well aware, at all levels, of the importance of this matter to Australia.
“The Australian government is making extensive efforts to seek Mr Alaraibi’s safe return to Australia, and will continue to advocate for this.”