International human rights groups and football associations call for release of detained Bahraini footballer

A press conference was held yesterday (25 January 2019) at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) regarding the detained Bahraini footballer and refugee Hakeem al-Araibi. Hakeem fled Bahrain after he was sentenced prison, and had reportedly been previously imprisoned and tortured for his brother’s political activities. He was arrested at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on 27 November 2018, while traveling to Thailand with his wife.

Hakeem al-Araibi (in handcuffs)

Craig Foster, former captain of the Australian national football team and human rights activist, called for Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to respect Australia’s sovereignty and allow Hakeem to return to Australia, since he has already been given asylum by the Australian government. Foster noted that, currently, there is an international campaign calling for Hakeem’s release, since this is not a lawsuit, but is a case of refoulement, which violates international law and the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), to which Thailand is a state party. Foster also called for FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to seek possible measures to boycott the Football Association of Thailand and Bahrain and to ban them from taking part in international competitions, since Hakeem is a refugee who is being held in prison unlawfully and unnecessarily. And if the Bahraini government asks for Hakeem to be returned to Bahrain, Foster called for FIFA to take part as an independent observer in all meetings related to Hakeem’s case.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said at the press conference that by detaining and imprisoning Hakeem, Thailand has gone against what Gen Prayut said at the United Nations General Assembly: that Thailand respects human rights principles. He noted that Thailand does not treat refugees the way it promised the world it would. Under the military government led by the NCPO, Thailand has a track record of returning refugees to countries where they would be at risk, such as Cambodia, Laos, China and Vietnam.

In an interview with ABC radio on 24 January 2019, Nantana Sivakua, the Thai Ambassador to Australia, said that there is an Interpol red notice against Hakeem, and the case needs to be processed according to extradition laws. Hakeem’s attorney may use the possibility that he will be tortured if he is returned to Bahrain to ask the court to stop his deportation, and she thinks that the court will rule in his favour. In response, Robertson said that the Interpol red notice has been lifted since Hakeem is a recognised refugee. Robertson also said that if a country that respects international law knew of Hakeem’s refugee status, he would be sent back to Australia. Torture is normal in Bahraini prisons, and extraditing Hakeem under a charge from a Bahraini court would be a violation of the UN Convention against Torture.  

Robertson also called into question the circumstances of Hakeem’s arrest. He suspects that this is a political game between Thailand and Bahrain, since he was informed that the Thai officers who arrested Hakeem knew which seats were occupied by Hakeem and his wife, and had a copy of his old passport.  

Robertson called for an international campaign on Hakeem’s case. He said that Australia could start by pressuring Thailand and Bahrain to release Hakeem, or the Australian Embassy in Bangkok could start the campaign. He also told Prachatai that international human rights groups are already planning their next steps, and they have contacted many well-known football clubs about this case.

Related: “We are very concerned,” says Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs about detained footballer

On 23 January 2019, FIFA also issued a letter to Gen Prayut, Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs Don Pramudwinai, and Thai Minister for Tourism and Sports Weerasak Kowsurat, expressing their concern about Hakeem’s detention and possible extradition. FIFA called on Thailand to allow Hakeem to return to Australia.

FIFA’s letter says “We strongly believe that this course of action will do justice not only to Thailand’s obligations under international law, but also to basic human and humanitarian values, which we know your country and government hold dear.” FIFA also requested a meeting with a high-level representative of the Thai government “at the earliest possible convenience” to discuss the situation.

The relationship between Thailand and Australia recently became the subject of international attention, not only because of Hakeem’s case but also the case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who was allegedly fleeing domestic abuse and was on her way to Australia when she was detained at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Rahaf has since been granted refugee status by UNHCR and has now been resettled in Canada. Hakeem, on the other hand, is still detained at Bangkok Remand Prison, and has been imprisoned for 60 days so far.