'Please help me': refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi tells of his Thai jail ordeal
Hakeem al-Araibi, the refugee footballer from Bahrain who was detained in while on his honeymoon, has said he is “losing hope” and believes he will be tortured again or even killed if he is deported to Bahrain.
Speaking to the Guardian from Bangkok Remand Prison, a visibly distressed Al-Araibi said he was “terrified ” and that his fear was “getting worse every day”. Al-Araibi was given asylum in Australia in 2017 after fleeing his home country where he was persecuted for his beliefs, tortured in prison and convicted on a trumped-up vandalism charge.
“I didn’t do anything in Bahrain, I didn’t do anything in Thailand, I didn’t do anything in Australia,” said Al-Araibi. “How can they keep me locked up like this? Please help me, please. In there are no human rights and no safety for people like me.”
In late November, Al-Araibi, 25, who has lived in Australia for five years, found himself at the centre of a nightmare ordeal when he and his wife arrived in Thailand for their week-long honeymoon.
Prior to leaving Australia, he had called up the immigration authorities to check he was safe to travel and had been given multiple assurances he was protected and could go “anywhere but Bahrain”. His sister back in Bahrain warned him it was a risk to travel but he had assured her: “I am under Australia’s protection now, they will not let anything happen to me.”
But touching down in Bangkok, he was immediately detained by the Thai authorities. which had erroneously been issued at the request of Bahrain, contradicting Interpol’s own regulations that notices will not be issued “if the status of refugee or asylum-seeking has been confirmed”.
Despite Interpol lifting the notice on 4 December and subsequent, Thailand – notorious for its draconian immigration policies where refugees are regularly sent back to countries where they may be in danger – made the decision to extend Al-Araibi’s detention for 60 days, pending a court verdict on whether to extradite him to Bahrain. Bahrain has until 8 February to submit the required documentation and then it is expected a court date will be set.
While the Interpol red notice from Bahrain was issued on the basis of a conviction for Al-Araibi in 2014 for vandalising a police station, charges he vehemently denies and stresses were politically motivated, the footballer is adamant that Bahrain’s determination to bring him back are in fact connected to public comments he made in Australia about his torture when he was in prison in Bahrain for three months in 2012.
Speaking to international media in 2016, Al-Araibi accused one of Bahrain’s most powerful figures, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa – a member of Bahrain’s ruling royal family and president of Asia’s governing body for football, who at the time was in the running for president – of discriminating against Shia Muslims (Al-Araibi is Shia while the ruling royal family is Sunni, divides that are starkly felt in Bahrain) and using his power to punish pro-democracy athletes who had protested against the royal family during the Arab spring in 2011.
“This is nothing to do with my conviction; Bahrain wants me back to punish me because I talked to the media in 2016 about the terrible human rights and about how Sheikh Salman is a very bad man who discriminates against Shia Muslims,” said Al-Araibi.
“I am so scared of being sent back to Bahrain, so scared because 100% they will arrest me, they will torture me again, possibly they will kill me.” He confirmed Bahrain had made no attempt to contact him since his arrest.
Al-Araibi’s fear of torture if he is deported back to Bahrain comes from a place of harrowing experience. In 2012, while he was a player for the Al Shabab football team, he was suddenly arrested on the street and taken to jail on the accusation he and his brother had vandalised a police station. The charges, he says, were “entirely false” – he had in fact been playing league football on TV when the alleged attack happened. But he believes he was targeted due to the support his brother had given pro-democracy Arab spring protests the year before, and the fact he is a Shia Muslim.
“It was hell for me,” he said, describing prison. “For the first two days they blindfolded me and beat me in the face and legs, telling me I would never play football again. Five hours’ straight many police beat me. They poured cold water over my face and back. They were not even trying to get a confession out of me and whenever I asked them: ‘What did I do?’ they would just scream ‘shut up’ and beat me more.”
After three months in jail, Al-Araibi was released on bail and was certain the case against him was so flimsy it would be dismissed. But in 2014, while playing an away game in Qatar with the Bahrain national team, he got a phone call. He, his brother and an accomplice had been found guilty of the vandalism and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His brother is currently serving the jail term in Bahrain.
“I knew I could not go back to Bahrain,” Al-Araibi said. In a journey which took almost six months, he fled first to Iran, then Malaysia, then Thailand and eventually to Australia where he sought, and was later given, asylum. Since 2014, he has built a life in , marrying his wife who he has known since he was 17, and playing semi-professional football.
There is hope that the recent case of who barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room to prevent being deported back to Saudi Arabia, might work in Al-Arabi’s favour. , Thailand allowed her to rather than obliging Saudi Arabia’s deportation requests. Thai authorities subsequently pledged to “follow international norms” in the treatment of asylum seekers.
Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, told ABC radio on Wednesday her government was “very deeply concerned” by Al-Araibi’s ongoing detention.
She noted she had met with the deputy prime minister, minister for justice and the minister for foreign affairs earlier this month in Thailand, and “we have most definitely ensured the Thai government is well aware at all levels of the great importance of this matter to Australia”.
Australian football teams have joined Al-Araibi’s Pascoe Vale FC club in calling for his release, staging protests, wearing armbands and stopping for a minute’s applause at A-League games around the country.
However, Football Federation Australia – whose chair is seeking a place on the executive of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) – has been criticised for its muted efforts. The AFC’s has said even less.
Fifa has released increasingly strong statements but has mostly directed its efforts towards the Australian and Thai governments. Football analysts and human rights groups have urged it to utilise the enormous influence it has with governments such as Bahrain, not least because Sheikh Salman is also its vice president.
In its first significant response to the outcry, , and he had only to return home and appeal his conviction because its court system was “independent and transparent” in line with international standards.
For Al-Araibi, languishing in jail, his thoughts are now only of his wife. “I am feeling very very bad, I miss my wife so much, I can’t sleep thinking about how much I miss her,” he said.
“To keep my sanity I just run around the prison building and every step I think about her. All I want to be is back with her, not trapped in here.
“We came to Thailand just to have a week of happiness here together but I regret it so much now, I wish we had never left Australia.”