Bahrain soccer player detained in Thailand pleads for help

Hakeem Al-Araibi’s finger traces over every sentence of the letter, eager not to miss even one word from his beloved wife.

The professional soccer player is unable to hold the precious message, instead he must read it from behind a glass pane as a friend holds it up from the visitors room of Bangkok Remand Prison in the Thai capital.

“I am crying inside, I miss her so much, we were together every day,” he tells CNN from the prison on Friday. The only way to communicate with him is through a telephone set that’s wired to the other side of the window pane separating inmates from their visitors.

Al-Araibi says he and his wife have been together for seven years and were planning on having a baby. “There is not a single day I would not miss her. I love her very much, and I worry about her very much.”

Those happy family plans were forcibly put on hold when Al-Araibi, a refugee and former member of the Bahraini national soccer team, was arrested at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport while on his honeymoon on November 27. Interpol had issued a “red notice” — an international arrest warrant — which is not supposed to be given to refugees.

Al-Araibi, who fled Bahrain in 2014, was detained and held in Thailand at the request of the Bahrain government. He holds refugee status in Australia where he plays for Melbourne soccer club Pascoe Vale, but has been locked in an overcrowded Thai prison cell since his arrest while officials await extradition proceedings.

On Friday, Al-Araibi’s lawyer said that is due to appear in court on Monday morning local time and will be asked whether he will comply with the extradition request or challenge it.

Activists campaigning for his release have launched a global campaign of support and warn that his case has become an “absolute emergency” now that an extradition request has been filed.

Speaking to CNN’s News Stream on Thursday, former Australia soccer captain Craig Foster, who is spearheading the campaign, said Al-Araibi is “nothing more than a political prisoner.”

“This is about retribution from the government and royal family in Bahrain, and all Australians are saying we will not stand for it,” he said.

Fleeing torture in Bahrain

On Monday, Bahrain’s Minister of Interior, Lieutenant General Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, said that extradition proceedings were “in process” and a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman confirmed to CNN that Thailand had transmitted the documents to the Office of the Attorney-General.

Rights groups say if Al-Araibi is extradited to Bahrain, he could face unfair trial, imprisonment and torture. Al-Araibi has publicly said that he was tortured in Bahrain and that his life would be in danger if he returns.

“I think it is imperative to know that Hakeem is a torture survivor,” Evan Jones, program coordinator for Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) told CNN.

“It is almost certain that he’d suffer the same fate again if returned to Bahrain. The Thai government should outright reject the extradition request from Bahrain and allow Hakeem to return home (to Australia),” said Jones.

The 25-year-old said he is afraid that he will be sent back to Bahrain.

“I couldn’t sleep much during the night, I have been thinking a lot until my head aches. I am afraid to go back,” he said.

Inside the prison, Al-Araibi said he initially had to share a cell with 60 other people but has now been moved into a “better room.”

He fills his days by running in the prison yard and trying to keep fit, “I run every day. But the place is too small,” he said.

Al-Araibi has been openly critical of the Bahraini government and its record on human rights. In 2012 he was arrested and detained for three months accused of vandalizing a police station during a protest. He told CNN that he was released because he presented evidence that he was playing soccer live on TV when the protest happened.

Al-Araibi was playing soccer in Qatar when he was sentenced to ten years in absentia in 2014 for the vandalism charge — a verdict that came as a surprise to him, Al-Araibi said. He fled to Australia where he was granted refugee status in 2017.

He told CNN that he believes Bahrain has targeted him now because of a 2016 interview he gave to German channel, ARDTV, saying that Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President, Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, was not fit for the presidency of FIFA.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Al-Araibi accused Salman of failing to stop a crack down on Bahraini athletes during the 2011 Arab Spring protests.

Bahrain’s Interior Minister on Monday defended the extradition request and said that claims Al-Araibi would not receive a fair trial, or would face torture “false reports.”

“External interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain is unacceptable,” he said. “Those raising unfounded doubts about the integrity and independence of the Kingdom’s judicial system are not only interfering, but also attempting to influence the course of justice.”

Al-Araibi said he has done nothing wrong. He said his mother and sister are in Bahrain and are afraid to speak out for him.

Campaign to release Al-Araibi intensifies

As Al-Araibi’s fate becomes increasingly uncertain, a global campaign for his release is gathering steam.

Australia soccer captain Foster, who along with Brendan Schwab, Executive Director of the World Players Association, met with FIFA officials in Zurich on Monday to urge the world soccer governing body to do more to ensure his release.

Foster said that from his meeting with FIFA general-secretary Fatma Samoura, Al-Araibi’s case has been “escalated to immediate high level meetings with both countries.”

“This is the litmus test,” Foster told CNN. “The case that is going to prove whether sport and human rights is substantive, and that the political and huge economic implications coming out of the Middle East region can not play any role in what is a very basic case of a refugee law.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has written to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, telling reporters this week that Australia is “pushing on every door” to ensure Thailand releases him, according to SBS news.

Other sporting and human rights organizations, including the International Olympic Committee, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also putting pressure on Thailand to free Al-Araibi.

Al-Araibi’s wife, who has asked not to be named, penned a letter to the Thai prime minister urging for her husbands release. She has also appealed to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern for help, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

“I can’t sleep, can’t breathe, knowing what awaits him,” she wrote in an op-ed with the Guardian last week.

Speaking to CNN, Al-Araibi implored FIFA, sporting organizations and those working on human rights to help him fight his case.

“It is 2019 now, there should be human rights. In Bahrain there is none,” he said.

“Please fight for me.”