Thailand to free refugee Bahraini footballer after extradition bid dropped


BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand will free by the end of Monday a refugee Bahraini footballer with residency status in Australia who was arrested more than two months ago, a prosecutor in the case said, after Bahrain abandoned its bid to seek his extradition.

FILE PHOTO: Jailed Bahraini footballer Hakeem Al Araibi leaves Thailand’s Criminal Court, in Bangkok, Thailand February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Hakeem Al Araibi, 25, who fled Bahrain in 2014 and received refugee status in Australia, was arrested in November at a Bangkok airport while on a honeymoon trip following an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request.

However, the Middle East nation has withdrawn the request, leading a Thai court to approve a motion by prosecutors to drop the case against the footballer, said Chatchom Akapin, an official in the Thai Attorney-General’s office.

“The court will now issue an order to release Mr Hakeem from jail today,” said Chatchom, the director-general of the office’s international affairs department.

“There are no grounds to hold him anymore. It is his right to decide where he will go next. He is a free man.”

It was not immediately clear when Bahrain withdrew its extradition request. Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had no comment on the case.

The detention of Araibi, who appeared at a court hearing in shackles last week, drew international criticism, with Australian authorities and fellow footballers urging Thailand to release him. He says he faces torture if returned to Bahrain.

“My thanks go to the wonderful people of Thailand for your support and to the Thai government for upholding international law,” former Australia soccer captain Craig Foster, who helped lobby officials at world governing body FIFA to intervene on Araibi’s behalf, said on social network Twitter after the news.

Monday’s development follows an appeal, reported by media on Saturday, to the Thai prime minister from two Australian divers who helped save 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave.

Araibi has said he wants to return to Australia, where he has lived since 2014 and plays for a Melbourne football club.

He was convicted of vandalizing a police station during 2011 anti-government protests in Bahrain and sentenced in absentia after he fled. Araibi denies the charges, saying he was playing in a televised soccer match at the time of the attack.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has said Araibi was tortured by Bahraini authorities because of his brother’s political activities during the 2011 protests.

Bahraini authorities deny allegations of torture.

Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Paulina Duran in SYDNEY; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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