The decision to drop the extradition case against refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi and release him was a moment that few saw coming.
Just a week earlier Araibi had appeared in a Bangkok court room, barefoot, legs in shackles.
He was told his next court date was April 22, that Bahrain’s request to extradite him was proceeding, and that he faced months more in prison.
Araibi told The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in an interview inside the Bangkok Remand Prison a day after the hearing that he believed he would be tortured by authorities if he was returned to the country of his birth.
“Why did they put chains on my leg? I’m not an animal. It made me feel sick,” he said, urging the Australian government to keep fighting for his release.
Meanwhile, in Bangkok, Canberra, Melbourne, London and Zurich an intense lobbying campaign was under way to free the footballer.
In Bangkok, the key players included Araibi’s legal team, led by Nadthasiri Bergman, the Australian-born Evan Jones from Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network and Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch. It was kept quiet at the time, but Bergman worked for free for more than a month before money was found by the Australian football community to help pay her.
Australian embassy staff worked to free Araibi from the moment on November 27 that he was detained because of a Red Notice that should never have been issued.
In Melbourne, the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights campaigners Fatima Yazbek and Yahya al-Hadid were also working hard while his club, Pascoe Vale FC, worked to raise awareness of the case.
In Canberra, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, not to mention the Department of Foreign Affairs, were also working on the case, making phone calls, taking meetings, writing letters and issuing carefully-worded public statements.
There is now talk about an inquiry in Australia into the federal police’s role in notifying Thailand about Araibi’s arrival in Bangkok, and whether the automated system of Red Notice notification is fit for purpose.
In London, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei from the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy was looking for new ways to prove Araibi simply could not have committed the crime (vandalising a police station) that he was convicted of in Bahrain in 2012, because he was playing in a televised football match.
The Australian football community, led by Craig Foster, who became the public face of the campaign, and who shuttled between Australia, Bangkok and Zurich, worked with World Players’ Association president Brendan Schwab and fellow former Socceroo Francis Awaritefe, who is the vice president of the players’ union FIFPro, to pressure FIFA over the case.
Piece by piece the campaign came together. The presence of FIFA’s Federico Addiechi in court on February 4, for what turned out to be Araibi’s final court appearance, was regarded as a significant win, and a clear signal to Thailand that this problem wasn’t going to go away.
Similarly, the presence of a dozen of so representatives from European, American, Canadian and New Zealand embassies, standing behind Australian ambassador-designate Allan McKinnon at the court hearing, had an impact on Thai officials’ thinking, and was a coup for Australian embassy staff.
At one point, the Thai Foreign Ministry stated the executive branch of government could not step in to free Araibi – a comment that appeared to contradict a statement from the Office of the Attorney-General a few days earlier, that the executive could free Araibi.
Then came the intervention of Australians of the Year Richard Harris and Craig Challen last Saturday. Harris and Challen are revered for their crucial role in helping rescue the Wild Boars soccer team from Tham Luang Cave in July 2018.
Their comments carried significant weight and reverberated through out Thailand’s political establishment.
Traditional and social media kept up a constant hum of coverage and calls for Araibi’s release.
Eventually, at the highest levels of the Thai government, a decision was taken. The Araibi problem wasn’t going away. Indeed, the international pressure on Thailand was only growing.
There were growing calls for FIFA to issue sanctions against Thailand’s national football team and club sides, a move that would have caused huge upset in the football-mad nation.
The comments of cave rescue heroes Richard Harris and Craig Challen reverberated through Thailand’s political establishment.
On Sunday Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha picked up the phone and called Bahrain’s Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, to discuss the case, the day before Araibi’s release was announced.
Thai Foriegn Minister Don Pramudwinai was sent to Bahrain’s capital, Manama, to meet with Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince, and with Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa.
A solution had to be found, and one that hopefully allowed both nations to save face.
Few know exactly what was said during those phone calls and meetings. The bland statement issued by Bahrain’s foreign ministry barely hints at what actually took place. They say the pair discussed bilateral relations and reviewed areas of mutual interest.
But as one close observer of the case puts it: “Thailand came to a realisation that this wasn’t going away. The pressure was going to continue and this was difficult and embarrassing. They needed to do something about this and that meant sending Hakeem back to Australia”.
“The trip by Pramudwinai and Prayut’s phone call were to let Bahrain know that Thailand wanted out. And to try to limit the embarrassment [for both sides]. It was all pretty ad hoc.”
As the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy’s Alwadaei, himself a refugee, says: “Thailand decided to cut its losses, its international reputation was being burned and it was not sustainable to unlawfully detain him”.
When it was done, it was done quickly.
On Monday afternoon it was announced Araibi was being released. He would board a plane home to Melbourne that very night.
An official from the Thai attorney general’s office, Chatchom Akapin, claimed that Bahrain had requested the extradition case be dropped, though the Thai Foreign Ministry has declined to give details of why that request was made.
Curiously, Bahrain released a statement revealing it had called in Australia’s Ambassador, Ridwaan Jadwat, to effectively request Australia extradite Araibi.
As another Bangkok-based observer of the case, who also asked not to be named, explains: “Bahrain has dropped the extradition request with the Thais and are continuing it with others. They don’t want to lose face so they are continuing it elsewhere”.
Of course, the extradition won’t happen.
Araibi was found by Australia in 2017 to be a genuine refugee and, after more than 70 days in detention, he is home in Melbourne with his wife and free to play football again.
As Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson puts it: “this is a beautiful day for the beautiful game”.
He likened the events to when Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed was freed from Bangkok airport after her story of wanting to escape her own family went viral.
“For the second time in a month we have seen the power of social media and especially Twitter to concentrate the wishes of the world on Thailand in a specific case,” Robertson says. “The Thais reversed what would have been a serious injustice and for that they deserve credit.
“But [Araibi] should never have been arrested in the first place.”