Australian-based refugee footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi has arrived back in Australia after his release from a Bangkok prison.
It’s the end of an ordeal Hakeem Al-Araibi will never forget.
The 25-year-old footballer is returning to his home in Melbourne, two and a half months after he was detained in Bangkok.
There, he faced the first steps of an extradition hearing, with his former home Bahrain hoping to have him sent back to face a 10-year jail term for a vandalism offence.
Hakeem Al-Araibi denies the charges and insists he would have been tortured if he was extradited.
Former Socceroo Craig Foster was the public face of the campaign to have Al-Araibi released, and he’s told the ABC it was important to stay hopeful.
“We had to believe. We weren’t sure, because the forces that were keeping him there were really extraordinary. There was the politics of sport, and of football, which was quite incredible. Bahrain have some really powerful allies in that area, who have immense amounts of financial strength in the game right now.”
Hakeem Al-Araibi’s release brings to an end a delicate period of diplomacy between the governments of Thailand, Australia and Bahrain.
Craig Foster praised Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne for their efforts in helping secure Al-Araibi’s return to Australia.
Prime Minister Morrison, in turn, thanked the governments of Thailand and Bahrain.
“I particularly, again, want to thank the Thai government for working with us closely and the Bahrain government for our interactions with them as well and we have excellent relations with both countries but the best news of all (is) Hakeem will be in Australia this afternoon and I think that’s something we give great thanks for.”
Hakeem Al-Araibi was first detained in Bangkok on November 27th under a red notice issued by Interpol at the request of Bahrain.
He’d fled his native Bahrain four years ago and was eventually granted refugee status in Australia.
He says he had been tortured for speaking out against the Bahraini government, and that the vandalism charges and subsequent 10-year jail sentence were for a fabricated offence.
International law prohibits refoulement – that is, forcibly returning a refugee to the country from which they fled.
Nevertheless, once the court proceedings were underway, there was fear Hakeem Al-Araibi could be detained in Thailand for up to a year and even then, possibly, extradited to Bahrain anyway.
Fatima Yazbek, from the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, says it’s been a long road.
“I’m speechless, there are no words which can describe our feelings at the moment. We were working on Hakeem’s case for more than 70 days. We were tense because the court says Hakeem would stay there until August. And today, tonight, surprisingly they said that Hakeem won’t be extradited to Bahrain, instead he’ll fly to Melbourne.”
Hakeem Al-Araibi plays football for Pascoe Vale, a club side in Victoria’s state league.
Only last week, the club tweeted that it had registered him for the coming season, saying it was hopeful he would be returned in time to play.
His case drew worldwide attention, with footballers all over the world expressing their support for the Save Hakeem movement, something which Al-Araibi says gave him strength during his time in detention.
He will now be back in Australia in time to start the season at Pascoe Vale.
The club’s chairman, Lou Tona, says Mr Al-Araibi’s return shows the strength of the football community.
“We didn’t choose to be involved in this, but it’s been unbelievable to be involved in this, it’s pretty liberating. It’s great to see so many unbelievable in this world, people who we never knew before hand, that have poured their heart and soul out to save Hakeem. I’m sure he’s going to be very thankful when he comes back but what we’ve managed to achieve, everyone, the whole football community and Australia has been unbelievable.”