HONG KONG — Thailand freed a refugee Bahraini soccer player detained for the past three months after a court dropped his case Monday, allowing him to return to Australia instead of being extradited to Bahrain, where he feared for his life.
Hakeem al-Araibi, who has refugee status in Australia, was detained in November when he arrived in Bangkok for his honeymoon after Bahrain issued a warrant for his arrest. Thai authorities said they were acting on an Interpol “red notice” that has since been invalidated. Such a notice cannot be filed by a government against a refugee fleeing persecution from that country.
On Monday, Chachom Akabin, director of the international affairs division of the Thai attorney general’s office, told reporters that Bahrain no longer wanted to take legal action against Araibi, so his office dropped the case.
Araibi was released from prison shortly afterward, and Thai officials said he would fly out that night.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, after earlier criticizing Thai authorities’ handling of the case, said Monday evening, “We greatly respect the process that they’ve 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.”
“As prime minister, I’m pleased Hakeem is coming home, and I’ll be pleased to see him at home when that occurs,” Morrison said.
Araibi, who plays for the Pascoe Vale Football Club in Melbourne, fled Bahrain in 2014 after he was convicted of vandalizing a police station, despite appearing on television in a football match at the time of the alleged crime.
He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison and left for Australia. He was granted asylum there in 2017 and has maintained that he would be tortured or worse if he were to return to Bahrain.
In a news release Monday, Bahrain’s state news agency said the country’s Foreign Ministry took “note of the halt in legal proceedings” to have him extradited. But the agency also wrote that the “guilty verdict against Mr. al-Araibi remains in place” and that the “Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr. al-Araibi.”
“The decision to issue an international arrest warrant stems from Mr. al-Araibi’s decision to flee while awaiting trial,” the state news agency wrote.
Bahrain continues to face fierce criticism from human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch’s director of global initiatives, Minky Worden, wrote Saturday that the Bahraini request to extradite Araibi represented “naked political persecution.” Rights groups said the case is part of a broader crackdown on dissidents.
In its latest assessment, Human Rights Watch lashed out at Bahrain over its bans on independent media outlets and opposition groups. “The Bahraini authorities have demonstrated a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to free media, independent political thought, and peaceful dissent,” Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, was quoted as saying in January.
Before the soccer player’s release, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry last week distributed a defensive statement in which it claimed that Thai authorities “would not have become involved in the issue had we not received the red notice alert from the Australian Interpol and the subsequent formal request by Bahrain for his arrest and extradition.”
Australia has acknowledged it notified Thai authorities about Araibi’s travel but vehemently rejected claims that it issued the initial red notice.
Thailand has been under sustained pressure to release Araibi, a campaign that intensified after the dramatic and widely publicized case of Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun.
Alqunun fled from her family to Bangkok while on holiday in Kuwait but was detained by authorities shortly after arrival. Through social media, mostly Twitter, the 18-year-old publicized her case, staved off efforts to return her to her family and won refugee status in Canada.
A similar campaign was launched on behalf of Araibi by human rights groups, fellow soccer players and other activists — including divers who helped save a Thai soccer team trapped in a cave last year — with the hashtag #SaveHakeem. Pressure had been intensifying on the Bahraini and Thai governments to drop the extradition case, especially after videos of Araibi walking in shackles were circulated on social media.
Noack reported from Queenstown, New Zealand. Paritta Wangkiat in Bangkok contributed to this report.