SYDNEY – Bahraini soccer player and refugee, Hakeem al-Araibi, landed in Melbourne, Australia, on Tuesday after spending more than two months in detention in Thailand while the Gulf nation sought his extradition.
The 25-year-old player landed at around 1:00 pm local time and was greeted by a crowd of reporters and cheering supporters at the terminal with signs saying “Welcome Home Hakeem.”
“I would just thank Australia, it’s amazing to see all the people here, all of Australian people, the media who have supported me,” said Al-Araibi, who plays for the semi professional Melbourne-based team Pascoe Vale.
“I will be more strong for this country, I will be strong here just for Australia. Australia is my country. I don’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia. I love Australia,” said Al-Araibi, accompanied by an ex-captain of the Australian national soccer team, Craig Foster, who led the campaign to free him.
Foster and several rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Association Football, had urged his release, while Canberra was engaged in diplomatic efforts with Thailand and Bahrain.
A Thai court ordered his release on Monday after the prosecutor’s office withdrew the request issued by Bahrain.
“Nevertheless, above all else, this is about a young man getting back to his wife,” Foster said.
“To fight incredibly hard for not just a young player who virtually no one knew, but a refugee who was under our protection,” he continued adding that Al-Araibi was ready to resume playing.
“He said ‘I feel strong Craig, I feel strong. I have been training in prison.’”
Al-Araibi could mark his return to the field on Thursday when Pascoe Vale goes up against Victoria.
Al-Araibi, who arrived in Australia in 2014 after fleeing his country, was arrested on Nov. 27 upon his arrival in Bangkok with his wife for their honeymoon.
He was detained due to an erroneous Red Notice issued by Interpol, which was later withdrawn, and an extradition request that was submitted by Bahrain.
Al-Araibi was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for vandalizing a police station during Arab Spring protests.
He denies the allegations, claiming that he was abroad playing a match with the national team when the alleged incidents occurred.
After his release, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison took to Twitter to thank Australians for their support as well as the Thai government for allowing Al-Araibi to return.
The opposition has called for an investigation into Australia’s role in his arrest, with critics claiming the country did not do enough to protect the refugee.
According to HRW, the case revealed lapses in FIFA’s human rights protection system and highlighted the need to ensure that human rights policies and practices are fully protected and implemented.
“I’m calling on Scott (Morrison) and Marise (Paye-Foreign Minister) to commit to more humane policies for all the ‘Hakeems’ who come into Australia’s care,” Foster said on his twitter account Tuesday.
He added that the case had “shone a particularly bright light on the atrocities against athletes of 2011/12 in Bahrain” and urged FIFA and the International Olympic Committee to carry out an investigation into the matter and ensure justice for all athletes.
Al-Araibi was granted refugee status in 2017 by Australia, a country he came to after fleeing from Bahrain in 2014.