BANGKOK: A Thai court ordered the release of a refugee soccer player after prosecutors said they were no longer seeking his extradition to Bahrain in a case that had drawn worldwide attention.
Thailand had come under great pressure from Australia’s government, sporting bodies and human rights groups to send Hakeem al-Araibi back to Australia, where he has refugee status and plays semi-professional football.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised the decision and said yesterday that al-Araibi was on his way to the airport.
“Now the next step is for him to return home,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
Thai prosecutors yesterday submitted to court a request to withdraw the case to extradite al-Araibi to Bahrain, where he faces a 10-year prison sentence for an arson attack that damaged a police station.
He has denied those charges and says the case is politically motivated.
Prosecutors made the decision after Thailand’s foreign ministry sent their department a letter yesterday morning that indicated that Bahrain had withdrawn its request for al-Araibi, said Chatchom Akapin, the director general of the attorney general office’s international affairs department
Officials in Bahrain, an island kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia that’s home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, said the country “reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against” al-Araibi.
Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement after his release that the “guilty verdict against Mr al-Araibi remains in place and Mr al-Araibi holds the right to appeal this court verdict at Bahrain’s Court of Appeal.”
It did not elaborate.
Al-Araibi, 25, a former Bahraini national team player, says he fled Bahrain due to political repression and that he fears torture if he returns. He has been living in Melbourne.
He has said he was blindfolded and had his legs beaten while he was held in Bahrain previously.
He said he believed he was targeted for arrest because of his Syiah faith and because his brother was politically active in Bahrain.
He was detained at the request of Bahrain relayed through Interpol upon his arrival in Bangkok in November while on honeymoon with his wife.
Activists praised yesterday’s developments.
“This is a huge victory for the human rights movement in Bahrain, Thailand and Australia – and even the whole world,” said Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
“Hakeem’s ordeal ended after 70 days when there was a clear public stance and solidarity movement.”
Former Australia national team captain Craig Foster, who has been leading the campaign for al-Araibi’s release, praised all those who worked on the campaign.
“Many wonderful people stepped forward to help Hakeem,” he wrote yesterday in comments on Twitter.
“They all deserve to be in front of camera now, not only me. I can’t list them, but will thank each of them in time. My thoughts are with Hakeem’s wife. Her nightmare will shortly be at an end. Our prayers answered.” — AP