Ex-Crystal Palace star Craig Foster: We must save refugee footballer Hakeem al Araibi detained in Thailand | World News

Hakeem al Araibi, an Australian refugee footballer, has been detained in Bangkok for almost two months after being arrested on his honeymoon in Thailand.

Despite the 25-year-old being granted asylum by Australia, he now faces possible extradition to his home of Bahrain where he claims he could be tortured or even killed.

A critic of the government and royal family, the authorities there say he committed an act of vandalism on a police station in 2014, despite the fact he was playing in a televised football match at the time of the alleged crime.

They refute suggestions his life is in danger and say he could challenge his conviction if he returns home.

Former Crystal Palace and Australian international footballer Craig Foster is one of a growing number of sporting celebrities calling for Hakeem’s release under the #savehakeem.

After visiting him in a Thai remand centre, he tells Sky News why time is running out to get the young footballer to safety.

Hakeem had been really looking forward to his honeymoon in Thailand and had organised the correct visa in Australia but when he arrived in Bangkok in November 2018, everything changed.

Thai officials boarded the aircraft as soon as it landed. Clearly they knew he was coming – he hadn’t even left the plane.

They had documentation directly from Bahrain and arrested him due to an erroneous Interpol red notice that had been issued. He was taken into custody, and although the red notice was subsequently cancelled, he hasn’t been released. That was almost 60 days ago.

He’s now being held in Bangkok Remand Prison waiting to see if Bahrain submits its extradition request by 8 February.

When I went to see him this week, he was extremely down. He said to me: “I’m losing hope.”

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Seeing a fellow player and a young man in that position for the first time is very confronting, unable to see his wife, hope dripping away, it reminds us of our own freedom and gives added motivation to see him returned home where he belongs

Craig Foster

He’s in a cell of 50, some of who are violent criminals. I understand the prisoners have one blanket and they can choose to use it as a blanket or as a pillow.

This is an innocent young man who is facing retribution from a torturous regime and has never actually done anything wrong except speak up for his fellow athletes and for democracy. The prospect of remaining in jail for years on end is another very effective form of constructive torture.

Visitors to the remand centre aren’t allowed to see the cells, instead you go in and get a number and wait to be called. You then get about 15 minutes to talk on the phone through the glass.

I’ve never had to do that before and I’m embarrassed to say, given what Hakeem is going through, that afterwards I was very emotional. Seeing a fellow player and a young man in that position for the first time is very confronting, unable to see his wife, hope dripping away, it reminds us of our own freedom and gives added motivation to see him returned home where he belongs.

I showed him a letter from his wife and he couldn’t see it through the narrow bars so I had to keep moving it. He was reading it hungrily, desperately searching for news from his loved one.

We brought him some small things to try and make his life better: some bread, some candy, socks, grilled chicken. He wanted socks because he could wear them to kick the ball around in jail. He is left to train when he can inside the prison, with his teammates now in pre-season.

He said to me: “Why must I play in prison when I should be playing for Pascoe Vale FC, back in Melbourne.”

But this is what his life has become. And this is happening to a young man who is a refugee and has been granted protection by our country.

In many ways it’s an embarrassment for us, and our government, and it should be stretching the relationship between our two countries to breaking point already. Australians are extremely upset by the situation, and Thailand should realise it’s damaging its international and regional image by holding Hakeem against his human rights.

Hakeem is powerless, he can only wait for Thailand to release him (which it should do) – or see what Bahrain and the courts do.

Two things can happen, either Bahrain will be put in its submission for extradition and the case will go through the courts which could take anywhere up to four years. That’s already a form of torture and a win for the regime for him speaking out. Alternatively, he may even be extradited back to Bahrain.

Hakeem al Araibi planned to spend his honeymoon in Thailand
Image:
Hakeem al Araibi planned to spend his honeymoon in Thailand

Either way, his life is in imminent danger because the cut-off date for Bahrain to submit a request is 8 February.

That’s why we are calling on athletes, football fans and people of conscience around the world to put pressure on Thailand and Bahrain now to drop the case and #savehakeem so that he is released immediately.

Some football players including Robbie Fowler and Hope Solo have been speaking out on his behalf, but we need to be even louder because time is running out.

When I saw him, I asked Hakeem for a message to Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA. He said: “Where are you? Where is FIFA? And where are my human rights?”

FIFA has issued two statements and just recently emailed a letter directly to the Thai prime minister, which is a welcome step, but nowhere near enough.

The FIFA president is duty bound to advocate directly to both governments. We must see a similar letter to Bahrain.

Mr Infantino understands perfectly what will happen if Hakeem has to go through the legal process in Thailand.

He has both the time and opportunity to save this young man’s life.

If he does not step forward now, if he does not communicate to Bahrain and threaten sanctions under FIFA regulations for their Football Association, then FIFA is complicit in the ongoing incarceration, potential torture or worse of a young footballer.

If that’s the case, not only is the human rights policy of FIFA completely worthless but the soul of FIFA and the soul of football is dead.

Sky News has contacted the Bahrain embassy in Bangkok, the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA for comment and has had no response.

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