The wrong person is rotting away in a Thai jail, writes Stuart Rees.
Bahraini soccer player Hakeem Al-Araibi has Australian residency, has lived here for four years but has been held in a Thai prison for the last 60 days.
Arriving in Bangkok late last year with his wife for their Thai honeymoon, he was arrested apparently because a Red Alert Interpol warrant indicated he was wanted by Bahrain authorities – in effect the royal family – for allegedly vandalising a police station. Television footage shows Hakeem playing in a soccer match when damage to the police station was supposed to have occurred. Nevertheless, he was sentenced in absentia to 10-years in prison.
There are other reasons why Bahrain authorities want Hakeem extradited from Bangkok. Following the Arab spring uprisings, in 2011 he had participated in pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. When thousands were imprisoned and tortured, including Hakeem, he raised questions about human rights, in particular regarding the role played by Sheikh Salman bin Abrahim Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahrain royal family, president of the Asian Football Conference (AFC) and a vice President of the international football federation FIFA.
Sheikh Salman appears to have considered that Hakeem’s criticism of his human rights record had enabled the Swiss Italian Gianni Infantino to defeat him in the FIFA Presidency election.
In this deceitful, unethical, illegal saga, the people who should be in the dock are the operators who have put Hakeem in a Thai prison and kept him there. The perpetrators of injustice include the government of Bahrain, Thai military and courts, powerful football officials and representatives of the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Taken before a court of human decency, this is what a prosecutor would say.
Powerful Operators Stand Accused
Bahrain’s government is vicious. Reports from Human Rights Watch show that torture and forced disappearance are common, civilians are tried by military courts, the only independent newspaper has been shut down and the death penalty restored. Hakeem has good reason to fear being returned to Bahrain where he’s certain he’ll be imprisoned and tortured again.
The next group in the dock are representatives of the Thai military government and officials in their courts. Thailand has a military government, is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, and is used to giving orders and having them obeyed. Admitting to weakness or to wrong doing is not in military ideology and certainly not in their rule books. The language and values of human rights must be as confusing to their officers as it is to the Bahrain authorities.
These serious accusations demand a caveat. The prosecutor’s case should not be overstated. Even within an authoritarian culture, there are exceptions to the rule. Thailand’s Chief of Immigration Police, Major General Surachate Hakparn has stated that he would not return anyone to a country where their life is in danger and that Thailand “will adhere to human rights under the rule of law”.
Thailand’s stereotype reputation as a ‘land of smiles’, inhabited by people who for the most part are said to be ‘helpful, courteous and kind’, is drowning in the sour mix of Bahrain, Thai and international soccer politics. This ‘land of smiles’ reputation has been damaged but could be restored by a principled decision to release Hakeem.
Obsessed with financial gain, the leaders of international soccer organizations are also neck deep in the mire of human rights abuses. The Asian Football Conference have not defended Hakeem. Their President Sheikh Salman has ducked under the cover of the lame excuse that sport and politics don’t mix.
The President of FIFA, Gianni Infantino has played an unethical role, or has attempted to play no role at all. Instead of being a powerful advocate for Hakeem, Infantino has stayed silent. Former Socceroo captain and television commentator Craig Foster has asked the FIFA President to speak on Hakeem’s behalf.
The multi-lingual Infantino knows how to move in prestigious circles and curry influence but he now needs to do something out of character. A modest injection of courage could enable him to tell the governments of Bahrain and Thailand, ‘The footballer Al Araibi must be back on the pitch. Give him his boots back. Let him play.’ Even if he thinks it’s provocative to speak of human rights, Infantino could at least say something about sportsmanship.
Officers of the Australian Federal Police are also offenders. The Australian government’s Department of Home Affairs has confirmed that the Red Alert for Hakeem’s arrest came from Australia. The AFP issued the document even though Interpol’s regulations say that such Red Notices will not be issued if the status of a refugee (Hakeem in this case) has been confirmed.
It looks as though, in a Canberra AFP office, automaton-like officers, preoccupied with reporting on terrorist suspects, did just that. Thai police, perhaps with the same mindset as the Canberra coppers, appeared to have gratefully received the Red Alert. It also needs to be revealed how Bahrain authorities knew of Hakeem’s travel plans.
Confronted with the accusation that their practice had been illegal, the AFP has scraped around for explanations, beginning with the idea that the sending of the red notice was ‘automatic’, followed by claims that Thai authorities would have arrested Hakeem anyway. This sounds like the boy caught in the school playground for misbehavior. ‘It wasn’t me sir, and even if it was, it’s not really my fault and besides it was going to happen anyway, so why pick on me.’
Tarred With The Same Brush
These powerful but usually invisible operators, stand before a court. They are tarred with the same brush, their careers characterised by throwing their weight around. Familiar with the use of force, they are practiced at dobbing people in and having them arrested. They defer to higher authorities.
In January 2019, when the Saudi Arabian teenager Rahaf Aqunun flew into Bangkok and sought asylum, she received prompt humanitarian treatment. As soon as she had been credited by the UN to be a refugee, she was on her way to safety and freedom in Canada.
An equally innocent refugee abroad, Hakeem Al-Araibi has had no such luck. Incarcerated because officials like to play quasi legal games and because of the financial leverage which Bahrain may have on the Thai economy, he is left with the prospect of further imprisonment. One of his Thai lawyers has made the prediction that court processes to decide his future could last for a year.
Hakeem is a victim of the shameful conduct of the government of Bahrain, of Thai military leadership, of leaders of football organisations and as a result of irresponsible decisions by members of the Australian Federal police.
With support from politicians motivated by human rights in Australia, a social media storm of the kind that helped Rahaf al-Qunun to freedom also needs to be waged for Hakeem’s return to Australia.
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