Bahraini football player Hakeem al-Araibi while being held in a Thai immigration detention facility. Photo: Facebook

Bahrain has bluntly rejected international efforts to free an outspoken critic of its regime who was detained while on honeymoon in Thailand after being granted protected refugee status by Australian authorities.

Interior Ministry officials in Manama said an extradition request had been lodged for the return of Hakeem al-Araibi, 25, an ex-member of Bahrain’s national football team who fled to Australia in 2013 while on bail for terrorism charges. He now plays with a professional football team in Melbourne.

“External interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain is unacceptable,” Interior Minister General Sheik Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa said. He claimed that al-Araibi had participated in “an arson attack, possession of inflammable bombs, and causing damage to public and private property.”

Al-Araibi was sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia in 2014 for his alleged role in the attack, which occurred during Bahrain’s failed Arab Spring uprising of 2011. Yet he appears to have a solid alibi: al-Araibi can clearly be seen in footage of a soccer match that was being shown on national TV at the same time.

Al-Araibi believes he was targeted because he is a member of the minority Shia population, which led the 2011 uprising.

He also criticized Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family and head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) when the sheikh ran for the presidency of football’s governing body FIFA in 2016.

Hakeem Al-Araibi at the Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, December 11, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum/Anusak Laowilas

Al-Araibi’s brother is also a prominent activist in the opposition movement.

Salman chaired a committee that drew up a list of athletes said to have participated in protests against the government, leading to the arrests of 150, including al-Araibi. Most of the athletes are still being detained.

Nadthasiri Bergman, a lawyer acting on behalf of al-Araibi, said he was tortured and fears similar mistreatment if he is extradited to Bahrain.

“He’s happy that there’s a lot of people working on this case. But when he thinks there’s the possibility the Thai government will extradite him, he’s terrified,” she said. “He said: ‘I was tortured before and I’ll be tortured again. I don’t want to face that again.’”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison requested this week that Thailand not comply with Bahrain’s extradition request. There have been similar appeals by human rights groups, FIFA and global football player associations. A petition for al-Araibi’s release with 50,000 signatures has been handed to FIFA.

In a rebuff to Salman, the AFC wrote to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, reminding him that al-Araibi has protected status as a refugee. The group is under intense pressure to act from the World Players’ Association.

Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa in a February 28, 2018 photo. Photo: AFP/Haidar Mohammed Ali

“The game cannot see any refugee footballer suffer harm under its watch,” the players association said in a letter to Salman. “No issue is more important to football as a global and universal game than protecting vulnerable people such as refugee players from detention and torture.”

Minky Worden, global initiatives director at Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights group, said that FIFA has certain leverage over Thailand, which has launched a joint bid with Indonesia to host the 2034 football World Cup.

“According to FIFA’s new bidding requirements, all host countries must report on their human rights climate – and sending a football player to a situation where he faces a real risk of torture would certainly be a black mark on Thailand’s record,” Worden said.

“Sheikh Salman’s senior position within both FIFA and the Bahraini ruling family makes him well-positioned to stop the extradition. If he cares about his status in Asian football, he should be pressing Thailand to free [al-Araibi].”

Prayut said from Bangkok that he understood “the concerns of all sides”, while adding: “We are in the process of exploring solutions.”

Thailand arrested al-Araibi in November after a red notice was issued by Interpol, the international police organization, that indicated at the time that he was a wanted fugitive.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha in track suit at Bangkok’s Government House. Photo: Facebook

Interpol’s red notice has since been withdrawn, but there are questions over why Interpol agreed to Bahrain’s request in the first place.

The organization’s own guidelines prohibit the use of such notices against refugees, and Australian security agencies did not release any threat advisory for al-Araibi when they informed Thailand of his travel plans.

Activists want to know how Bahrain was alerted that al-Araibi would be traveling to Thailand, thus giving it time to get a red notice issued. Worden warned that no refugee would ever be able to transit through Thailand in safety again if it agreed to Bahrain’s deportation demand.

“Thailand is bound by the customary international law principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life,” he noted.

“In addition, the United Nations Convention against Torture, to which Thailand is a party, prohibits governments from returning or extraditing anyone to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”

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