Thailand to free Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi after extradition case dropped

A football player jailed in Thailand will be allowed to travel to Australia as a refugee after Thai authorities abandoned a bid to extradite him to Bahrain for a crime that he insists he did not commit.

Following an international outcry, Thai prosecutors dropped an extradition case against Hakeem al-Araibi, a 25-year-old who was detained after arriving in Bangkok for a honeymoon with his wife. He has spent more than two months in prison.

Thai authorities have come under attack for pursuing the extradition but approved Mr Araibi’s release after Bahrain withdrew its request, according to Reuters.

"There are no grounds to hold him anymore,” said Chatchom Akapin, from the Thai attorney-general’s office. “It is his right to decide where he will go next. He is a free man."

Welcoming the decision, Craig Foster, a former Australian football captain who lobbied for Mr Araibi’s release, expressed gratitude to Thai authorities and to “everyone who stood for what’s right”.

“Most important thing now is Hakeem’s immediate wellbeing,” he said on Twitter. 

“Many wonderful people stepped forward to help Hakeem. They all deserve to be in front of camera now, not only me… My thoughts are with Hakeem’s wife. Her nightmare will shortly be at an end.”

Mr Araibi, a former Bahraini national team player, received refugee status in Australia after fleeing Bahrain in 2014, saying he was targeted by authorities because he is Shia and his brother is politically active. He has been playing for a semi-professional football team in Melbourne. 

Bahrain has been seeking his extradition for a 10-year jail sentence after a court convicted him in absentia for an alleged “terrorist operation”, involving an arson attack against a police station in 2012.  

Mr Araibi has always claimed he was innocent, saying he was playing football in a Bahraini league game broadcast on national television until about 30 minutes before his alleged arson attack occurred.

“I swear I didn’t do anything in Bahrain,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald last week. 

“Bahrain wants me because I talked about Sheikh Salman [Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, the Asian Football Confederation president, whom Araibi criticised while Salman was bidding for the FIFA presidency].”

Mr Araibi’s case has won support from the international sports community and led the Football Federation Australia to cancel an Under-23s training trip to Thailand.

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said on Monday that Canberra had been working with Thai and Bahraini authorities to enable Araibi to return to his wife in Australia.

“Australians… desperately want to see him come home,” he said.

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