Refugee footballer makes triumphant return to Australia

Daniel DE CARTERET
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Hakeem al-Araibi (C) was greeted by a throng of well wishers at Melbourne Airport after an overnight flight to freedom

Hakeem al-Araibi (C) was greeted by a throng of well wishers at Melbourne Airport after an overnight flight to freedom (AFP Photo/WILLIAM WEST)

Refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi made a triumphant return to Australia Tuesday, ending a harrowing two months in Thai detention, as his supporters called for an investigation into why he was arrested in the first place.

"I want to thank Australia," said a smiling Araibi, ending an ordeal that saw him jailed during his honeymoon and threatened with extradition to his native Bahrain. "This is my country."

"I don't have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia. I will die in Australia and I love Australia," he said.

A throng of well-wishers decked in #SAVEHAKEEM T-shirts cheered and sang the football anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone" as they greeted the 25-year-old defender at Melbourne Airport, after an overnight flight to freedom aboard Thai Airways flight 465.

Araibi was detained at a Bangkok airport on November 27 at the request of Bahraini authorities who accuse him of offences linked to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

His detention sparked worldwide outcry and a protracted diplomatic dispute between Bahrain, Thailand and Australia that raised questions about the neutrality of Interpol and the writ of Canberra's refugee protections.

Araibi had expressed fear that he would be tortured and killed if he returned to Bahrain and supporters allege his prosecution was politically motivated.

Former Australian football captain Craig Foster, who led a campaign in the sporting community for Araibi's freedom, expressed his "deepest gratitude" at his release.

But he also launched a broadside against politically linked officials who dominate sports governing bodies and who "played a role in bringing this about".

"We're not going to stop until we hold people accountable for what has occurred," he said. "We want to see an investigation in Interpol and the use of red notices."

Araibi has been a vocal critic of Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of Bahrain's ruling family.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed Araibi's release, saying many Australians' prayers had been answered.

"We know all Australians will deeply appreciate the decision, allowing him to return to his wife, family and friends."

Morrison thanked the Thai authorities, who had earlier left his written appeals for Araibi's return unanswered, but abruptly dropped extradition proceedings on Monday at Bahrain's request.

The case had also become a cause celebre in the football world, with stars like Didier Drogba calling for Araibi's release and FIFA urging the Thai football authorities to intervene.

The international football governing body on Monday thanked Thailand in a statement for "doing the right thing" and said it hoped the athlete "will be able to resume his footballing career soon".

- 'Cruel and inhumane' -

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, of the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said the case had brought the plight of others imprisoned in the country to light.

"Two moments captured the world's attention this month: the photo of footballer Hakeem al-Araibi shackled and barefoot, and the moment of Hakeem breaking the chains and reunited with his beloved wife, friends and the football community in Melbourne."

Thailand's treatment of refugees has been thrust under international scrutiny in recent weeks.

In January, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who ran away from her "abusive" family arrived at a Bangkok airport and -- armed with a smartphone and a captive Twitter audience -- managed to outmanoeuvre Thai authorities and gain refuge in Canada following her pleas for asylum.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha brushed aside questions about Araibi's detention, saying "everything was proceeded in an orderly way so please stop criticising -- there were many agencies involved in solving this case."

Bahrain's reversal of Araibi's extradition request is surprising.

Only last week the Gulf state issued a statement defending its decision to pursue the footballer after he fled while awaiting trial, and he was convicted in absentia in 2014 for damaging a police station.

A statement from Bahrain's foreign ministry on Monday said it "takes note of the halt in legal proceedings" though it did not confirm it had withdrawn its extradition request.

"The guilty verdict against Mr. Al Araibi remains in place.... (Bahrain) reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against (Araibi)," the statement said.

The reversal came a day after Thailand's foreign minister met with Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa in Manama to "discuss... areas of interest", according to Bahrain's state-run news agency.

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