Hakeem al-Araibi: Refugee footballer arrives in Australia after release from Thailand

Hakeem al-Araibi: Refugee footballer arrives in Australia after release from Thailand
Hakeem al-Araibi: Refugee footballer arrives in Australia after release from Thailand. picture-alliance/AP Photo/G. Amarasinghe
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Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi returned home to Australia on Tuesday, hours after being released from the Bangkok remand prison in Thailand on Monday.

Hundreds of supporters greeted the footballer at Melbourne Airport carrying welcome signs. "I would like to say thanks to Australia," Al-Araibi told the crowd. "It's amazing to see all of the people here and all of the Australian people and all of the media who supported me."

A criminal court in Thailand ordered al-Araibi's release on Monday after prosecutors submitted a court request to withdraw al-Araibi's extradition case to his native Bahrain, where he faces a 10-year prison sentence.

"There are no grounds to hold him anymore. It is his right to decide where he will go next. He is a free man," said Chatchom Akapin, an official in the Thai Attorney General's office.

Australia thankful

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was "pleased Hakeem is coming home."

"We would like to show our appreciation to the Thai government for the decision they have taken today," Morrison said in Canberra, adding that Australians "greatly appreciate their listening to the issues that have been raised by our government and many others who have raised this case."

Craig Foster, a former Australian soccer international who led the campaign to free al-Araibi, expressed his "deepest gratitude" on Twitter.

Bahrain's foreign ministry said in a statement that it has taken note of a "halt of legal proceedings" and reaffirmed its right to "pursue all necessary legal actions against him."

Fleeing Bahrain

The 25-year-old footballer was arrested in Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport in November while on his honeymoon. Bahrain had attempted to extradite him so he could serve a 10-year prison sentence for an alleged arson attack that damaged a police station. He denies the charges, which he says were politically motivated.

Al-Araibi was originally arrested in 2012. He told German public broadcaster ARD in 2016 that his legs were beaten during his detention. He believed he was targeted because of his Shiite faith and because his brother was politically active in Bahrain, which has a Shiite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy. Bahraini authorities have denied allegations of torture.

In 2013, he fled the country while on bail and playing for the national team in Qatar. He eventually settled in Australia in 2014, where he has refugee status. He had been playing for a semi-professional soccer team in Melbourne before he was detained in Thailand.

Al-Arabi's extradition case quickly grew international attention, with non-governmental organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch calling for his release. Al-Araibi's wife also begged for his release in an open letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, saying her husband would face "imprisonment, torture and possible death" if sent back to Bahrain.

jcg,dv/amp (AP, dpa, Reuters)

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