I am afraid if I go to Bahrain, I will be tortured again, says footballer facing deportation from Thailand

Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi has refugee status in Australia and was in Thailand for a honeymoon. He was accused of burning a police station during the thwarted Arab Spring protests in Bahrain in 2011.
Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi has refugee status in Australia and was in Thailand for a honeymoon. He was accused of burning a police station during the thwarted Arab Spring protests in Bahrain in 2011.PHOTO: CHANGE.ORG

BANGKOK (NYTIMES) - The trip to Thailand was meant to be a belated honeymoon for a young football player and his wife.

But upon landing at a Bangkok airport last week, Mr Hakeem al-Araibi, 25, a political refugee from Bahrain playing for a Melbourne football team, was detained by Thai immigration authorities who have been asked to extradite him to Bahrain, where he said he had been tortured.

"Please, I am afraid if I go to Bahrain, I will be tortured again," Mr Al-Araibi said by phone from an immigration detention centre in Bangkok.

On Thursday evening (Dec 6), Mr Al-Araibi said he had been told by immigration officials that he must appear in court on Friday. Human rights groups are worried that Thai authorities are poised to extradite him.

"We want to go to beaches and beautiful places," Mr Al-Araibi said of his Thailand visit. "I have only seen this immigration prison."

His case is not only a window into how vulnerable foreigners are treated in Thailand, a country with a history of deporting asylum-seekers, but it is also seen as a bellwether for how well Fifa, the scandal-plagued body governing international football, is playing by new rules designed to protect its athletes.

"This one player sitting in detention is a very important indication of whether it's a new day for human rights for Fifa or will it go back to an old system where human rights abusers got away with their crimes and the victims were punished," said Ms Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

Mr Al-Araibi's detention at the airport on Nov 27 was a response to an Interpol request based on an arrest warrant from Bahrain, Thai officials said.

But earlier this week, the Interpol request, a red notice, was lifted, according to Thai immigration authorities.

Precisely why it was lifted remains unclear. But such requests are not meant to be used by repressive governments to nab political opponents overseas. They also are not meant to apply to refugees. Mr Al-Araibi has refugee status in Australia.

Nonetheless, Ms Busadee Santipitaks, a spokeswoman for the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the case against Mr Al-Araibi was ongoing.

"We have received a provisional arrest request from Bahrain and are in the process of considering the matter in accordance with our domestic laws and regulations," she said.

"Even though Interpol seems to have lifted the red notice, the arrest warrant against him from Bahrain still stands," said Major General Surachate Hakparn, immigration chief of Thailand.

Mr Al-Araibi's case will need to make its way through the Thai legal system within 12 days, or by next Friday (Dec 14), because Thailand does not have an extradition treaty with Bahrain, Maj Gen Surachate said.

"The Thai court will be the one that makes the decision whether to send him to refuge in Australia or send him back to Bahrain," he said. "There's no big worry about this story because we only follow the law."

But human rights groups worry that a political refugee is on the brink of being forced back to Bahrain, a country with a record of persecuting opponents to the ruling family.

The United Nations "remains very concerned" about Mr Al-Araibi's case, said Ms Cynthia Veliko, regional representative for South-east Asia for the UN Human Rights Office.

Once a star defender on the Bahrain national soccer squad, Mr Al-Araibi was swept up in the Arab Spring protests in 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis marched against the ruling family of the small Gulf kingdom that is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet.

The crackdown by the Sunni Muslim monarchy was especially tough. Thousands of Shi'ites, who make up the country's religious majority, were imprisoned and tortured, human rights groups say.

Last month, three Shi'ite leaders of Bahrain's opposition were sentenced to life imprisonment for spying, in what Amnesty International called a "travesty of justice".

In 2014, Mr Al-Araibi was sentenced in absentia to 10 years' imprisonment on charges of having burned a police station during the thwarted protest movement.

Mr Al-Araibi said he had been playing in a televised football match when the crime supposedly occurred.

He later accused Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of the ruling family and the head of the Asian Football Confederation, of doing nothing to stop the persecution of Shi'ite athletes who were thought to have joined the protests.

"They tortured me," Mr Al-Araibi said of his treatment by Bahraini security forces. "They wanted to hurt me so I could not play football again."

In 2016, Sheikh Salman vied for the presidency of Fifa. Once considered a favourite for the top job, he lost the race to Swiss-born Gianni Infantino, amid a blitz of negative press about Bahrain's human rights record.

"Not only did Sheikh Salman lose the vote narrowly, but in the course of the contest, Bahrain's appalling record of torture and abuse of detainees was front and back page news," said Mr Nicholas McGeehan, an independent researcher on human rights in the Gulf. "They will have considerable thirst to take revenge."

Sheikh Salman, who did not respond to requests for comment, remains at the head of the Asian football body and is a vice-president of Fifa.

A Fifa spokesman said in an e-mailed statement that it had become aware of Mr Al-Araibi's "urgent situation".

"Fifa supports the calls for the Thai authorities to allow Mr Al-Araibi to return to Australia, where he currently enjoys refugee status, at the earliest possible moment," the statement said.

The international football body has been troubled by crises in recent years, most notably a corruption scandal that thinned its leadership ranks in 2015.

This month, members of the Afghan women's football team claimed a chronic pattern of sexual abuse by male coaches and officials. Fifa says it is investigating.

As a result of human rights controversies surrounding Russia's hosting of the World Cup this year and Qatar's planned hosting in 2022, Fifa unveiled new rules designed to better protect players and whistle-blowers. Sponsors had urged the changes.

Mr Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association, which represents the interests of 85,000 professional athletes globally, described Fifa's reforms as nascent.

"These structures, while groundbreaking, are in their infancy," said Mr Schwab, who is an Australian labour and human rights lawyer. "We are still finding that too often enforcement is coming down to the political will of the leadership of football."

As a registered football player, Mr Al-Araibi should be protected by Fifa's strengthened human rights policy, Mr Schwab said.

"It is not relevant that Mr Hakeem al-Araibi may have made comments critical of a Fifa official," he said. "What is relevant is that he is a refugee in need of protection by the game's leaders who wield enormous power."

Australian diplomats have met Mr Al-Araibi and are calling for his return to Australia, but declined to comment further on his case, citing privacy considerations.

Thailand does not recognise refugees, but it is party to two other international conventions that the UN says apply to Mr Al-Araibi's case: one against torture and the other protecting civil and political rights.

Under military junta rule for four years, Thailand has extradited members of the Uighur Muslim minority to China, where rights groups say they are at risk of torture. Chinese dissidents seeking refuge in Thailand have also been forcibly repatriated.

In October, a Thai court ordered the deportation of about 70 Pakistani Christians and other religious minorities who had overstayed their visas. The Pakistanis said they feared persecution if they returned home.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand, who led a 2014 military coup, visited Bahrain last year. His counterpart in Bahrain, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, was quoted in a Thai newspaper saying he considered Thailand his second home.

On Wednesday, Prince Khalifa attended a function at the Thai Embassy in Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

In 2014, Thailand, acting on an Interpol request, handed Ali Ahmed Ibrahim Haroon, a Bahraini who had taken part in the 2011 Arab Spring protests, into the custody of Bahraini officials.

UN officials said Haroon endured such harsh treatment on the journey back to Bahrain that he had to be transferred to a hospital upon arrival. He is still in prison.

"We know what will happen to Hakeem if he is sent back," said Mr Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei, director of advocacy for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in London. "He made a lot of powerful people very upset."

Mr Al-Araibi said some of his former teammates from the Bahrain national team remained in jail.

"I don't want to go back to Bahrain," he said from detention in Bangkok, his voice shaking. "I want to play football in Australia."