ABC: Hakeem al-Araibi’s return to Australia after Thai prison release a victory for sport and human rights

The campaign to free Hakeem al-Araibi after 76 days in a Thai prison began as a grassroots movement and quickly snowballed into an international juggernaut.

What characterised the “#SaveHakeem” movement was the diversity of the organisations involved, from sporting groups to non-government organisations (NGOs), unions, governments, as well as grassroots pressure from the public in Australia, Thailand and around the world.

The movement began soon after Mr al-Araibi, an Australian footballer and refugee, was detained in Thailand on November 27 last year at the request of Bahrain, following a tip-off from Interpol.

“There was a lot happening behind the scenes right from the very beginning,” Australia-based Amnesty International spokesman Tim O’Connor said.

“That first month we were in contact with many embassies and an organisation in Thailand called the Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network. They ensured that he had food, clothing and toiletries.

“It really escalated with us in early January when Hakeem’s wife came and met us with the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.

“And having her there in front of us and seeing the very clear nightmare that she was living through really pushed us into action.”

Foster’s involvement ‘absolutely crucial’

Also invited to that meeting was retired Socceroo and football commentator Craig Foster, who became the public face of the campaign to free Mr al-Araibi.

“We encouraged Craig to go Thailand and he was very keen to go,” said Mr O’Connor, who described Foster’s participation as “absolutely crucial”.

“From there it really escalated in a significant way.

“Craig really was able to lift [the profile of the campaign] to a whole other level. His advocacy on this has been just incredible. It’s been absolutely inspiring to see”

Foster had financial backing from the Australian football players’ union, the Professional Footballers Association (PFA).

Also playing a key role was Francis Awaritefe, a retired Socceroo who is a member of the PFA’s executive and the vice-president of FIFPro, the umbrella body for professional football unions around the world.

The PFA and FIFPro was able to escalate the campaign from a grassroots movement beginning with Mr al-Araibi’s local Melbourne team, Pascoe Vale, to a world movement.

This encompassed the World Players Association, which represents a number of global professional sporting movements, and FIFA and the International Olympic Committee.

But what characterised the #SaveHakeem campaign, according to Mr Awaritefe, was the sheer breadth of the movement.

“This was a global coalition,” he said.

“You’re talking about the players’ unions. Even the trade union movement in this country were involved, the ACTU, and you had NGOs and human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty Australia.

“You had the Australian embassy in Bangkok, who were very much involved in the diplomatic end of things. You had political lobbying with Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister, and Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister.”

Al-Araibi campaign became a global issue

Football Federation Australia also got involved, with its chairman Chris Nikou saying the organisation was working closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at every stop, as well as FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation.

Olympians started to join the campaign, initially in the form of former Canadian swimmer and human rights lawyer Nikki Dryden, then Australians such as gold medallists Kim Brennan and Ian Thorpe, and recently Australia Olympic Committee president John Coates.

The turning point in the campaign came last week when Mr al-Araibi appeared in a Thai court.

“Hakeem was led in in shackles and this was something that really captured the international attention and really shifted the dial of concern,” Mr O’Connor said.

Mr Awaritefe attended, along with Mr Foster and senior FIFA official Federico Addiechi.

“At this point as well, FIFA had agreed that the situation had become an emergency, so we wanted to go with FIFA to show a united front,” Mr Awaritefe said.

“Up until that point it had been a regional issue. It became a global issue in terms of global coverage.

“And at that point as well possibly the Thailand Government had started to maybe realise that this matter wasn’t reflecting very well on Thailand’s international reputation.”

The letter written last week to the Thai Government by the two Australians of the year and Thai cave diving heroes, Dr Richard Harris and Dr Craig Challen, added to the weight of public opinion.

Mr O’Connor said by this stage the campaign was “snowballing”.

“#SaveHakeem, for a period there, was the number one trending theme in Twitter in Thailand,” he said.

Mr O’Connor said the release of Mr al-Araibi had been “an incredible thing to witness”.

“It just escalated organically, but always the focus has been on a wrong that needed to be righted,” he said.

“It’s delivered a fantastic outcome.”

Mr Awaritefe said the campaign had been a “watershed moment” for sporting organisations and the campaign for human rights.

“Now what we want to do is make sure this is embedded and really go on to make sure and hold senior leaders in sport governance around the world — who do not support or defend human rights — that those sorts of people will not be allowed to hold any position in sport governance,” he said.

Source: ABC