Refugee footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi released from Thai prison after Bahrain withdraws extradition case
Refugee footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi has been released from a Bangkok prison and is returning to Melbourne after Bahrain informed the Thai authorities it no longer wanted to extradite him, several sources have confirmed.
The dramatic U-turn comes a week after a Thai judge sent Al-Araibi back to prison, giving his legal team 60 days to prepare their defence before the next stage in the extradition process commenced.
The decision will come as a huge relief to the 25-year-old, his family and friends but it is also a triumph for the global football community that rallied around him following his arrest in November when he was in Thailand on honeymoon.
Al-Araibi was granted refugee status in Australia in 2017, three years after he fled there from his native Bahrain, where he claims he was tortured following the Arab Spring protests. He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly vandalising a police station, even though he was playing in a televised match at the time.
Since settling in Melbourne, he has played for local side Pascoe Vale but was detained at Bangkok airport by Thai police acting on an Interpol arrest warrant issued by Bahrain.
His case has attracted international attention over the last three months and the campaign to save him from extradition was led by former Australia captain Craig Foster, who spent four years in England with Portsmouth and Crystal Palace between 1997 and 2001, and now works as a television pundit.
Foster confirmed the good news and tweeted: "My thanks go to the wonderful people of Thailand for your support and to the Thai Govt for upholding international law. My deepest gratitude. Also to everyone who stood for what's right."
Juventus star Giorgio Chiellini, Didier Drogba, Gary Lineker and Jamie Vardy are just some of the stars who have publicly backed the #SaveHakeem campaign, with the global footballers' union FIFPro and the World Players' Association all lobbying hard on his behalf as well.
The Australian government, FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and human rights groups also spoke out or wrote open letters to Bahrain and Thailand on the matter. It is obvious this coalition eventually persuaded Bahrain to back down.
In a statement, Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy director of advocacy Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei said: "This is a huge victory for the human rights movement in Bahrain, Thailand and Australia, and even the whole world.
"It took 70 days to end Hakeem's ordeal but it was possible because of the solidarity of the football community, human rights movement and all those who dedicated their time and efforts to end this injustice. Now, let's continue the fight to release all of the political prisoners who languish in Bahrain's prisons."
Al-Araibi will fly back to Australia on Monday but he does not return to his new home a completely free man, as the authorities in Bahrain claim they do not consider this to be the end of the affair.
In a short statement, Bahrain's ministry of foreign affairs said "it takes note of the halt in legal proceedings" in Thailand but the "guilty verdict" against Al-Araibi remains in place in Bahrain, where he "holds the right to appeal".
It added: "The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr Al-Araibi."
FIFA, world football's governing body, responded to the positive news from Thailand by issuing a statement to say it is "extremely pleased" to see Al-Araibi on his way home to Australia.
"This is the outcome we have worked for together with a broad coalition of human rights organisations, governments and the wider football community over the past two months," it said.
"We would like to sincerely thank everyone who has contributed to this outcome and, in particular, the relevant public authorities for doing the right thing and bringing Hakeem's ordeal to an end. We wish Hakeem a safe return to his family and hope he will be able to resume his footballing career soon."
Amnesty International's senior director of global operations Minar Pimple said: "This was a baseless and cynical extradition request from the Bahraini authorities, who wanted to punish Hakeem for his peaceful political views.
"Hakeem spent more than two months behind bars in Thailand, when he should not have been detained for a single second. It is only right that he should go back to Australia - where his family, his football club, and the country that gave him sanctuary are waiting."
Those sentiments were echoed by players' union FIFPro, which also singled out Foster for praise.
"We salute the tireless campaigning of Craig Foster and Professional Footballers Australia to secure Hakeem's release," it said in a statement.
"We also recognise the solidarity shown by scores of football players who helped raise awareness about his wrongful detention."