All he wanted was a holiday. Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old refugee making a reputation for himself as a tough defender in Victorian Premier League football, landed in Bangkok with his wife in late November only to find he had not escaped the Bahraini government’s clutches.
Thai authorities detained him as the subject of an Interpol Red Notice. Even after it was lifted, Bahrain wanted him in jail ostensibly for vandalising a police station.
The damage is said to have happened while Araibi was playing for the national team. There are suspicions he was really wanted because his older brother was active during the Arab Spring.
Araibi, described by those at Pascoe Vale FC and friends in Melbourne and Sydney as quiet, loyal and “a brother to us all”, also spoke out against an influential royal in 2016, and claimed to have been tortured before he fled in 2014.
It was not for nothing Australia granted him refugee status, permanent residency and the travel documents he needed for his first proper holiday with his wife.
“It was like their honeymoon,” said Ghassan Khamis, who helped Araibi with his refugee claim.
Even knowing his status, and despite having a Jetstar ticket to return to Australia in his hand on December 1, Thailand opted to detain him some more.
A court ruled on Monday he remain in the Suan Phlu immigration detention centre for a further 12 days while evidence was gathered. When he was moved from the airport, his wife feared he had been taken from her forever. On Friday, rights groups said he was in imminent danger of being sent to Bahrain.
As protests were staged outside Thai consulates in Melbourne, Sydney and London, the head of the immigration police announced Araibi had officially been arrested.
The extradition to Bahrain had formally begun, but further hearings are expected to take place this week as Australia has requested he be returned to Melbourne.
“We believe sending him back to Bahrain is an absolute violation of international laws and mores,” said Khamis, whose organisation, the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, has been among the many groups to have spoken out.
In detention, with his wife said to be nearby at all hours, Araibi has been able to transmit messages to the outside world. In the most recent, he told supporters he had started a hunger strike.
“He’s feeling very petrified,” Hassan Abdal Nabi, a friend of four years staging a protest outside Melbourne’s Thai consulate, said through a translator. “He has just escaped and tried to start his life over.”
The thought of being tortured, spending the rest of his 20s incarcerated and his playing career destroyed had left him despondent.
He’s right to worry. Thailand has sent at least one wanted man back to Bahrain; he is now serving a life sentence, and his family claims he has been abused. That man, however, did not have refugee status or residency; Araibi has firmer legal ground and Australian-issued travel documents.
He also has the Australian government’s support, and while Foreign Minister Marise Payne has been circumspect in her public comments and the post is between ambassadors, sources say the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is working in diplomatic circles to apply pressure.
“We are unaware of what the Australian government is doing because most of it is kept confidential, but we do urge all parties to apply pressure to Thailand,” Nabi said.
Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy’s director of advocacy, Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei, says conflicting statements from Thailand “simply don’t add up”.
“After [Jamal] Khashoggi’s gruesome murder, the world should not underestimate how far the Gulf states will go to crush dissent and silence dissidents. The Thai government must know it’s crossing a red line if it deports Hakeem.”
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson accused Thailand of engaging in a “cynical, rights abusing game” as Araibi faced a 10-year sentence and certain torture.
“As a defender on the Bahrain national football team, Hakeem al-Araibi angered Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, the current chair of the Asian Football Confederation, by revealing to the media the Sheikh’s role in human rights abuses around the Arab Spring, which fatally damaged his chance to be FIFA president.
“So there is a revenge and retribution motive here, and it’s clear that Bahrain is pulling out all the stops to try and get him by hook or by crook,” Robertson said.
“The Interpol Red Notice process fails to protect human rights when it allows rights abusing states like Bahrain to manufacture charges against their nationals who flee overseas and obtain refugee status. Even though Interpol ultimately lifted the notice against Hakeem al-Araibi, the damage was done with his detention just long enough for Bahrain to file extradition papers with Thailand. If al-Araibi is forced back to Bahrain, there will be blood on both Interpol and Thailand’s hands.”
For Pascoe Vale FC president Lou Tona, all he wants is to have one of his top players run out on the pitch when the season starts. The alternative, he told FNR Football Nation Radio last week, doesn’t bear thinking about. “We pray to God that just doesn’t happen, not just Hakeem but I don’t think anyone deserves that.”