Soccer player pleads for Thailand to not send him to Bahrain


A soccer player who has refugee status in Australia pleaded outside a Bangkok court on Monday for Thailand to not send him home to Bahrain, which is seeking his extradition to serve a prison sentence for a crime he denies.

“Please speak to Thailand, don’t send me to Bahrain. Bahrain won’t defend me,” a chained Hakeem al-Araibi shouted to reporters outside court as he was escorted by prison guards into the hearing.

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison sent a letter last month urging Thailand to stop the extradition, and soccer governing bodies and human rights activists have urged the country to let him return to Australia where he lives and plays for a semi-professional team in Melbourne.

The court could order another detention while his extradition is processed, or if al-Araibi refuses to return to Bahrain willingly, a trial would be held. Thai officials previously said the length of the trial would depend on how many witnesses are called by each side.

Al-Araibi, 25, a former Bahraini national team player, says he fled his home country due to political repression. Bahrain wants him returned to serve a 10-year prison sentence he received in absentia in 2014 for an arson attack that damaged a police station, which he denies.

Al-Araibi was detained upon his arrival in Bangkok in November while on a holiday, and subsequently was held pending the completion of the extradition request by Bahrain.

“Your wife sends her love, Hakeem. All of Australia is with you. Be strong. Football is with you,” former Australia national soccer team captain Craig Foster said to Hakeem outside court. Foster has been in Bangkok to push for al-Araibi’s release.

“I think the facts of this case are a very simple one. Hakeem is a refugee. He is a human rights defender and therefore under international law he should not be subject to these proceedings,” Francis Awaritefe, vice president of FIFPro, an international soccer players’ body, said at the court.

Hakeem has said he was blindfolded and had his legs beaten while he was held in Bahrain previously. He said he believed he was targeted for arrest because of his Shiite faith and because his brother was politically active in Bahrain. Bahrain has a Shiite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy.

A court filing made last week by Thai prosecutors noted that while Thailand and Bahrain do not have an extradition treaty, extradition is still possible by law if Bahrain makes an official request, which they did, and if the crime is punishable by over a year, is not politically motivated or a military violation.