A Bahraini footballer was freed from Thai custody on Monday and was preparing to return to Australia, where he has refugee status, after authorities in Thailand said his home country had dropped its request for his extradition to serve out a 2014 conviction.
A court in Thailand’s capital approved the release of Hakeem AlAraibi, 25, from the Bangkok Special Prison, where he had been held for 76 days, in response to the notification by Bahrain that it was withdrawing its extradition request, Thai officials said.
He and his wife headed to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, where they were waiting to board a late night flight to Melbourne, according to local media. AlAraibi, who was granted asylum in Australia after fleeing Bahrain to avoid prison, did not speak to reporters upon his release.
A senior official with the Thai attorney-general office who processed AlAraibi’s release said it had received notification about the extradition cancellation on Monday morning.
“The foreign ministry informed us that Bahrain no longer intends to proceed with him, therefore it advised the attorney general to withdraw [the case],” said Chatchom Akapin, director general at the International Affairs Department of Office of the Attorney General.
Thai officials did not discuss details of Bahrain’s request.
“[I] cannot disclose the reasons, but all processes were carried out according to laws,” Thai foreign ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks said.
In a statement posted on its website Monday, Bahrain’s foreign ministry said it had taken “note of the halt in legal proceedings against Hakeem AlAraibi in Thailand.”
However, the statement did not confirm or make clear whether Bahrain had withdrawn its extradition request.
“The guilty verdict against Mr. AlAraibi remains in place and Mr. AlAraibi holds the right to appeal this court verdict at Bahrain’s Court of Appeal. The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr. Al Araibi,” the statement from the Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
A day earlier, the state-run Bahrain News Agency reported that Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa had talked over the phone with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, but BNA offered no specifics on their discussions, according to the Associated Press (AP). In addition, BNA said that Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa met Sunday with the Thai foreign minister, who was visiting Bahrain, but the agency did not release details of the meeting.
Meanwhile in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked those involved in securing AlAraibi’s release, AP reported.
“What we would like to do tonight is to thank and show our appreciation to the Thai government for the decision that they have taken today,” Morrison said. "We greatly respect the process that they have had to work through and we greatly appreciate their listening to the issues that have been raised by our government and many others who have raised this case.”
Rights activists react
AlAraibi’s lawyers could not be reached for comment, but rights activists celebrated.
“Hakeem’s release today is a triumph for rights activism and social media campaigns and marks world football’s successful entry on to the global human rights stage,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“Thailand stepped up today, reversing a serious injustice and re-affirming its respect for the rights of refugees. And Australian policy makers learned that when they speak out loud and clear in one voice, anything is possible,” Robertson told BenarNews.
AlAraibi, who plays for a football club in Melbourne, was arrested at Suvarnabhumi Airport on Nov. 27, 2018, as he and his wife arrived for a vacation in Thailand. The immigration bureau chief said officials detained him in acting upon an Interpol “Red Notice” at the request of Bahrain. Interpol later revoked the notice.
Bahrain wanted AlAraibi extradited to serve a 10-year sentence. He was convicted and sentenced in absentia in 2014 on charges of arson, vandalism and possession of explosive materials for vandalizing a police station in November 2012.
AlAraibi rejected Bahrain’s extradition request on Feb. 4, telling a Thai court he was innocent. He has maintained he was participating in a televised football match at the time of the crime.
In addition, AlAraibi said Bahraini authorities had tortured him while he was in custody in 2012. He fled from Bahrain before his trial and was granted asylum in Australia in 2017.
Since AlAraibi’s detention began, Australia, world football confederation FIFA, human rights groups and football fans had called for his release, launching a social media campaign with the hashtag #SaveHakeem.
“The best part is Hakeem’s wife, his football club, and his fans across Australia and the world can finally see him back where he belongs – out on the field playing the beautiful game and not in a prison cell,” Robertson said.