Thailand’s prime minister on Tuesday said he could not interfere with legal procedures for determining whether a Bahraini footballer with Australian refugee status should be sent back to his home country, despite a chorus of international calls demanding his release.
The legal process would go on although world football confederation FIFA, Australian government officials and others have pleaded to Thai authorities to free Hakeem AlAraibi and allow him to return to Australia, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said.
“In regard to FIFA, I would like to say that we must respect our law. The issue has entered the judicial procedure and we cannot interfere in the court matter,” Prayuth said.
“Bahrain, Australia and FIFA – we are a good friend to them. I understand their concerns,” he told reporters during a weekly press briefing after a cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok.
Last week, Thailand received an official extradition request for Hakeem AlAraibi from Bahrain’s government, a Thai foreign ministry spokeswoman confirmed.
AlAraibi’s lawyer, Natthasiri Bergman, said the Thai attorney general must file the extradition request with the court by Feb. 8, adding that her client had a right to appeal.
Natthasiri, who visited AlAraibi on Tuesday, said he insisted that he did not deserve to be sent back to Bahrain. He also expressed his appreciation for the support he was getting from so many people, organizations and nations.
“He seemed very depressed and said he tried to be strong. But it’s getting harder because he has been in jail in Thailand while his wife is outside alone by herself,” Natthasiri told BenarNews in a phone interview.
AlAraibi holds refugee status in Australia, where he plays football for a Melbourne club. He was detained in November when he and his wife arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport to vacation in Thailand. His wife has returned to Australia without him.
When they took him into custody, Thai authorities said they based his arrest on an Interpol “Red Notice” put out by Bahrain, which had sentenced him in absentia for vandalism.
In 2014, Bahrain sentenced AlAraibi to 10 years after he was convicted of vandalizing a police station. The footballer, who said authorities tortured him in custody in 2012, denied the charge and claimed he was playing a match that was televised live when the alleged crime occurred.
Bahrain has no extradition treaty with Thailand, but extradition could be done on a reciprocal basis or through a special agreement, with Bangkok rendering a decision based on a court verdict.
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he wrote to Prayuth several days ago, emphasizing that AlAraibi’s plight was important to him personally as well as the people and government of his country, the Sydney Morning Herald reported Tuesday.
“The Australian government is calling on the Thai government not to extradite Mr. AlAraibi to Bahrain and instead release him home to Australia to be with his friends and family,” a spokesperson for the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday, according to the newspaper.
“The Australian government is making extensive efforts to seek Mr. AlAraibi’s safe return to Australia, and will continue to advocate for this,” the spokesperson said.
FIFA, the international sports organization, is pushing for the footballer’s freedom, as well.
“We strongly urge the authorities in Thailand and Bahrain to do the right thing and ensure Mr. AlAraibi can go back safely to Australia as a matter of urgency,” FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura said Tuesday in a statement posted on its website.
Days earlier, Samoura sent a letter to Prayuth requesting a meeting between FIFA and Thai government officials to discuss AlAraibi’s case.
“When according refugee status to Mr. AlAraibi, the Australian authorities conclude that Mr. AlAraibi is at serious risk of mistreatment in his home country,” Samoura wrote in the Jan. 23 letter.
“As stated publicly on several occasions, FIFA is therefore respectfully urging the authorities of the Kingdom of Thailand to take the necessary steps to ensure that Mr. AlAraibi is allowed to return safely to Australia at the earliest possible moment, in accordance with the relevant international standards.”
Elsewhere, Human Rights Watch announced that it had established a social media campaign calling on Facebook, Twitter and email users to adopt the #SaveHakeem to encourage concerned athletes and others around the world to contact Prayuth on behalf of AlAraibi.
Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, compared AlAraibi to Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun. The 18-year-old, who arrived in Thailand earlier this month after fleeing her family in Saudi Arabia, was granted refugee status and allowed to travel to Canada where she received asylum.
In a Facebook post, Robertson said AlAraibi’s case was stronger than al-Qunun’s because he already was established as a refugee.
“It is not easy to get refugee status in Australia. He went through the entire process, an interview, a background check. For Thailand to simply disregard that shows contempt for human rights standards,” Robertson said in the post.