Thailand Drops Extradition Request for Bahraini Footballer

(ATR) Hakeem Al-Araibi will reportedly head home to Australia as soon as today.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 19: Sydney FC fans display a sign in support for Hakeem al-Araibi during the round 14 A-League match between Sydney FC and the Newcastle Jets at WIN Jubilee Stadium on January 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 19: Sydney FC fans display a sign in support for Hakeem al-Araibi during the round 14 A-League match between Sydney FC and the Newcastle Jets at WIN Jubilee Stadium on January 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

(ATR) Footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi, whose story captured global attention in recent months, is reportedly on his way back to Australia, after Thailand dropped an extradition request from his native Bahrain.

Al-Araibi was arrested in November with his wife while travelling to Thailand for a honeymoon. He was arrested and tried in Bahrain in 2012 for vandalism, a trial which human rights groups have denounced.

In 2014 Al-Araibi fled to Australia requesting political asylum, and was granted refugee status in 2017. After arriving in Australia, Al-Araibi was sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia. His arrest was triggered by an INTERPOL Red Notice, which was immediately withdrawn due to Al-Araibi’s refugee status.

Thailand had accepted an extradition request from Bahrain, which Al-Araibi’s legal team had prepared to appeal following a court hearing earlier this month. Al-Araibi was expected to remain in detention until April, which was the deadline for an appeal.

It was the Thailand Office of the Attorney General (OAG) that reportedly halted the court proceedings because Bahrain had withdrawn the extradition request. Al-Araibi reportedly will return to Australia immediately.

"This morning the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed us that Bahrain was no longer interested in this request," Chatchom Akapin, OAG foreign chief officer, said in a statement reported byBBC.

Thailand sent its foreign minister to Bahrain for a state visit this past weekend, meeting with senior officials in the Middle East kingdom.

Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement following the news of Al-Araibi’s release that it "takes note of the halt in legal proceedings" in Thailand. However, the statement made clear that Al-Araibi’s sentence would not be expunged, despite his residency in Australia.

"The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr al-Araibi," the statement added.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked Thai authorities for "listening" to the issues of the case, in resolving the diplomatic tussle.

"Now the next step is for him to return home. But as it always is in these cases, people aren't home until they're home," Morrison was quoted as saying.

Rights Groups Celebrating

Al-Araibi’s case captured the attention of human rights and sports groups, both of which launched a pressure campaign to seek the footballers release.

FIFA, football’s governing body, sent representatives to Thailand to work to secure Al-Araibi’s return to Australia where he plays for a semi-professional team. The IOC lent support through its member Khunying Patama Leeswadtrakul, and the UN High Commission on Refugees also lobbied for his release.

The Asian Football Confederation, of which both Australia and Bahrain are members, did not issue a statement on the matter until Jan. 26, after groups had pressured the confederation for perceived inaction. AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, is a member of the Bahraini royal family.

The AFC said in a statement that Sheikh Salman had stepped aside in the matter, as Vice President Praful Patel had been elevated to handling all matters in the AFC’s West Zone.

Numerous high profile international footballers such as Didier Drogba, Jamie Vardy, and Matthew Ryan took to social media with FIFPro, the global footballers' union network, to urge their support for Al-Araibi.

Human Rights Watch tweeted that the decision by the Thai court was "a great day for human rights activism," and welcomed Al-Araibi’s return to the country where he enjoys refugee status.

The Centre welcomes Hakeem Al-Araibi's release from detention in Thailand, shortly to return home to Melbourne. A demonstration of collective action & impact, key actors exerting & creating leverage in public & behind scenes, to protect & respect fundamental #humanrights in sport

— Centre for Sport & Human Rights (@SportandRights) February 11, 2019

Craig Foster, the former Australian international footballer turned SBS presenter, called the turn of events a "significant win for humanity". Foster had travelled to Thailand to lobby on Al-Araibi’s behalf and was instrumental in the online #SaveHakeem pressure campaign.

"This is significant win for humanity, people everywhere standing up for good, pushing back against regimes who flout international law, for human rights," Foster tweeted. "Gives us hope to help others, everywhere #HakeemHome."

Thankyou to so many including @ScottMorrisonMP and @MarisePayne as well as the amazing people at @AusAmbBKK My thanks again to the people of Thailand for respecting international law. Hopefully we can build on this powerful step forward #SaveHakeem

— Craig Foster (@Craig_Foster) February 11, 2019

Homepage photo: Getty Images

Written by Aaron Bauer

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