Before Hakeem al-Araibi walked into Melbourne airport’s arrivals area, into the hordes of waiting media and supporters, he stopped in the duty free shop to buy his wife some perfume.
It had been 77 days since they’d been alone together. Seventy-seven days since their planned honeymoon to Thailand’s beaches was stopped before it began, as Thai authorities met the couple as they disembarked from the plane at Bangkok and arrested al-Araibi on an Interpol red notice he had no idea existed.
The details now are well known. Bahrain wanted al-Araibi back to serve a 10-year sentence delivered in absentia for an act of vandalism he says he couldn’t have committed because he was playing in a televised football match. He fled the charge while on bail, having already been imprisoned and tortured for three months.
Al-Araibi, a 25-year-old Bahraini dissident, football player, refugee and Australian resident, had landed in the centre of a complicated and terrifying tug of war.
A cry for help
There were three countries involved but really it was so much more. Over the coming months a dizzying array of parties would have some kind of input into or responsibility for what had happened or what might happen next.
It crossed lines of international diplomacy, law enforcement, refugee law, human rights and the Arab Spring, the geopolitics of football, and the regular politics of domestic elections.
But first, it was a small holding cell in a Thai immigration building. It was more than 48 hours before word got out that he and his wife were there. She wouldn’t leave him.
Gulf democracy groups, some run by just two or three people, and al-Araibi’s Sydney-based lawyer began contacting media.
“I’m a refugee in Australia, I’m scared of the Bahraini government,” al-Araibi told the Guardian while he still had his phone.
“They will kill me. I don’t know what’s going to happen there. My life will end if I go to Bahrain.”
Evan Jones, program director at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, was in Morocco when he got a call from a Palestinian refugee friend.
“He was detained with Hakeem, in the same cell as Hakeem. He called me when he got out and said ‘just to let you know there’s an Australian footballer in there and he’s a refugee, he’s a lovely guy and his wife is so sweet, if you guys can do anything you should help out.”
Jones became an integral part of the small army which formed, essentially working full time to free one man. He would soon be visiting weekly and became friends with al-Araibi.
Meanwhile Thai immigration officials assessing the situation were confused by al-Araibi’s UN refugee travel documents, and juggled the red notice, a separate arrest request from Bahrain, and Australia’s pleas to have him released.
A senior official said if the documents were legitimate he would be sent back to Australia, because he was a refugee.
Things moved quickly over the following week.
Al-Araibi was told to book a flight home for the following day but just hours before takeoff it was cancelled and he was bundled off to a Bangkok prison. His wife was told he wouldn’t be coming back.
A court extended his detention, then the red notice was lifted, but then a separate request from Bahrain appeared and Thailand gave it respect.
A powerful silence
Fears grew and human rights groups rallied. Al-Araibi’s Melbourne football club, Pascoe Vale, learned quickly about red notices and refugee law and diplomacy, and started to campaign for his release. Players associations and unions joined in.
Former Socceroo captain Craig Foster started rattling cages. Where was Football Federation Australia? Where was Fifa? The Asian Football Confederation? They had obligations.
But it was Christmas and public interest was low. Some weeks later a Saudi teenager, Rahaf al-Qunun, would also be detained in Thailand and threatened with deportation back to the country she’d fled.
Observations that her plight had galvanised more support than al-Araibi’s seemed to spur people on, and the campaign moved up a gear, driven by every group that had been there from the beginning, but spearheaded by Foster.
The Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights’ Fatima Yazbek and Yahya al-Hadid, their young daughter in tow, travelled between Melbourne and Sydney meeting human rights groups, activists, and journalists, introducing them to al-Araibi’s wife and sharing their expertise and personal experiences with the long arm of the Bahrain state.
Protests, op-eds, actions at Australia’s A-League games lit up news sites. Olympians and some of the world’s most famous footballers got on board. Foster showed up on the Swiss doorstep of Fifa, and demanded action from its secretary general Fatma Samoura, before flying back to Sydney to hold a rally outside the Opera House.
They called for sanctions and boycotts. How could Thailand hope to host a World Cup after this? Fifa should threaten to take the chance away. The International Olympic Committee should kick it and Bahrain out of the Games. They didn’t of course, because, of all the twists and turns along the way, the most consistent thing had been the limp words of the world’s most powerful sporting organisations.
Fifa and FFA had been dragged into something resembling forthrightness. The AFC, obstinately, said only it was working with Fifa and would not even call for his release.
Fans were disgusted. These organisations had developed and enshrined their own human rights codes: this was their first test and they were failing. Al-Araibi was one of theirs. But a powerful Bahraini was also one of theirs.
Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa, a Bahraini royal, was the head of Bahrain’s football association at the time of the athlete crackdown which saw 150 detained. He is the current president of the AFC, and the vice president of Fifa but an aspiring president.
Sheikh Salman’s significance in this saga was inversely matched by his silence.
Sitting inside the bleak, overcrowded confines of Bangkok remand prison in January, al-Araibi told the Guardian he believed his arrest was retaliation for his public criticism of Sheikh Salman at the time he was gunning for the Fifa presidency.
Prison visitors were only allowed 20 minutes but al-Araibi spoke urgently and fast, determined that the world knew the “real story”.
“This is nothing to do with my conviction; Bahrain wants me back to punish me because I talked to the media in 2016 about the terrible human rights and about how Sheikh Salman is a very bad man who discriminates against Shia Muslims,” he said, emphasising over and over again his fears of being tortured or killed if he was sent back, such was the power of Sheikh Salman in Bahrain.
FFA executives had met with Sheikh Salman the day after al-Araibi was arrested but have said they weren’t aware of his situation. The FFA Twitter account posted a photo of the meeting, which stayed online.
They did eventually meet again, on the sidelines of the Asian Cup six weeks later. The Guardian understands FFA chairman, Chris Nikou, suggested to Sheikh Salman that Australia would like al-Araibi back.
If a later statement from the AFC is to be believed, that meeting would have been in vain anyway because Sheikh Salman no longer had sway, having recused himself a full 18 months ago from regional responsibilities to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest. It was the first anyone knew of it.
The AFC would eventually call for al-Araibi’s release – immediately after Bahrain formally lodged its extradition request to Thai authorities.
Behind the scenes international diplomacy rolled on. Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, and the Bangkok embassy staff, had worked continuously behind the scenes pushing for his release. Nothing was getting through to Thailand, despite the countries’ close relationship. Evidently Bahrain was closer.
Statements from Payne demanding his release grew stronger, but it was a lone voice from the Australian government. Scott Morrison, prime minister since August, said little and only wrote to his Thai counterpart after lobbying from Olympians.
Still al-Araibi sat inside the prison. Graham Thom from Amnesty International, described the conditions to a Sydney rally.
“During that time he has been held in a cell with 40 to 50 other people,” he said.
“He has to roll over at night with everyone else, just to be able to sleep.”
In late January he was brought to court. Wearing beige and pink prison clothes, al-Araibi shuffled from a bus to the court room door, barefoot and shackled, surrounded by guards. “Don’t send me to Bahrain!” he shouted.
“Australia is with you! Your wife sends her love!” Foster cried back.
With a coalition comprising representatives of 14 countries and the EU, Fifa, human rights groups, Foster, and his lawyers, al-Araibi stood as the judge read Bahrain’s charges against him. He declared he would not go back willingly. The court gave him 60 days to prepare a defence, bail denied.
That was last week, and his supporters, despondent, faced another two months or more of al-Araibi inside that crowded prison.
More people joined the cause. Thais were horrified at the images of his shackles beamed around the world. The Australians who helped rescue a team of schoolboys from a Thai cave last year cashed in their capital, writing directly to the Thai prime minister.
Morrison wrote again.
Then rumours began, of what Foster called “developments”.
“We were extremely hopeful,” he told the Guardian. But they kept quiet.
Finally – freedom
Then the news broke on Monday. Citing “new information”, Thailand’s foreign ministry had petitioned the court to drop the extradition case.
Chatchom Akapin, the director general of the international affairs department of the attorney general’s office, told the Guardian it was because Bahrain had decided not to pursue it any more.
The claim didn’t hold water – and Bahrain almost immediately said it still wanted al-Araibi and would keep trying to get him – but it didn’t matter because he was going to come home.
Bahrain hauled in Australia’s ambassador and said publicly it was now requesting Australia extradite al-Araibi – an impossible request. It was dismissed as an act of face-saving but again, it didn’t matter because he was going to come home.
Less than an hour after the attorney general’s office announced the extradition charges had been dropped, al-Araibi was bundled into a police van out of Bangkok remand prison. Unusually he was not taken to a processing centre but instead sent straight to the airport to board a midnight flight back to Melbourne, the ticket paid for by the Thai authorities.
Asked via WhatsApp how she felt, al-Araibi’s wife responded “he’s coming” with a series of heart symbols and crying emojis. The young woman, who has been torn between staying out of the limelight and wanting to be with her husband, had endured the worst three months many could imagine. She reserved her belief that the ordeal was over until he got on the plane.
While all this was going on, al-Araibi didn’t know for sure that he wasn’t going back to Bahrain until around 8pm. Evan Jones, learning there was no one accompanying al-Araibi on the flight, bought a ticket.
With the immigration authorities keen to avoid any further furore around the case, which has been seen to have brought shame upon Thailand, al-Araibi was only escorted to his flight gate at the last minute, surrounded by 10 officers. Press were ushered away. But in a hurried comment to the Guardian, a beaming al-Araibi said: “I am so happy. I cannot wait to go home to my wife.”
“We talked for probably the first four or five hours of the flight, about anything and everything, his wife … how strong she was… about his family, his brother who’s still in jail in Bahrain,” said Jones.
“The support from Australia was probably one of the biggest ones, and how he felt about that.”
Al-Araibi was “overwhelmed” by the support, said Jones. He loved the country, where he didn’t have to look over his shoulder, and its people who had rallied for him.
‘My country is Australia’
The focus has been on al-Araibi, who is now free likely because of the size of the campaign, its star power, and the relentless pressure put on Thailand. There are others in similar or worse situations. As soon as he was safe his family and supporters urged people not to forget the others.
“Those are imprisoned merely in retaliation for their pro-democracy demands. Their parents as well aspire to reunite with them soon,” they said.
“The outstanding fight for Hakeem’s case has averred that the continuous and effective efforts would find their way towards success.”
Then he was home, walking through the gates at Melbourne airport to a waiting horde of well-wishers. Freshly shaved and in new clothes, al-Araibi was swamped with hugs, cheers, microphones. He spoke excitedly and confidently.
“It’s amazing to see all of the people here and all of the Australian people and all of the media who supported me,” he said, thanking the Australian government, its people, and Foster in particular.
“This is my country. I didn’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia.”
Foster stood beside him and vowed to hold people accountable, but for the moment what mattered was al-Araibi was heading home, to his wife, perfume in hand and perhaps a (local) honeymoon on the cards.
The cold and drizzly Melbourne day al-Araibi flew home to was nothing like the tropical beaches they had planned to visit, but with yet another jail cell behind him, it was paradise all the same.