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A FORMER Australian football player urged the sport’s governing bodies today to push for the release of a Bahraini refugee athlete detained in Thailand while it weighs his extradition.
Former national team member Craig Foster visited Hakeem al-Araibi at a Bangkok prison and said the Bahraini was losing hope after nearly two months in detention. Australia granted al-Araibi asylum in 2017 but Bahrain wants him returned to serve a prison sentence for a charge he denies.
Foster slammed Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for not doing more for the jailed player.
“We feel as though football hasn’t done enough,” Foster said after meeting with Araibi. “Fifa has failed to uphold its own human rights policy and certainly the AFC and President Sheik Salman have been completely silent throughout this whole process. It’s simply not good enough.”
Araibi plays for a semi-professional Australian team, Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale Football Club, and has played for the Bahraini national team.
Araibi has been granted refugee status by Australia, which determined he had a well-founded fear of persecution in his country of origin, and travelled to Thailand last year with his wife on honeymoon. He claims he received Australian government advice that he was safe to travel.
He was detained upon entry at Bangkok’s main airport in November on a Bahraini-requested erroneous Interpol red notice because he had been sentenced in absentia in 2014 to 10 years in prison for vandalising a police station, which he denies.
A Thai court in December ruled that Araibi could be held for 60 days pending the completion of an extradition request by Bahrain. His lawyer said yesterday that Bahrain has not yet officially submitted the extradition request but that Bahraini officials had been in touch with Thai officials via diplomatic channels.
Foster, who is now a television sports analyst, said Araibi suspects he is being sought by Bahrain because of critical comments he made about royal family member Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, the president of the Asian Football Confederation who was elected in 2013 despite criticism from human rights groups.
Araibi criticised Khalifa who is accused of overseeing a committee that identified athletes involved in the 2011 Arab Spring, who were later tortured.
Foster said Araibi had played football inside the Thai prison where he is being detained.
“He played for the champions of the prison,” Foster said. “And I said: ‘Did you win?’ He said: ‘Yeah we won but I got injured so I can’t play again.’ But he said: ‘Why am I playing behind bars?’
“‘They took my career and they broke my heart, because I love my wife and I love football,’ and he said: ‘The two things I love the most, they’ve taken from me’.”
“And that’s the message to Fifa,” Foster said. “This is a kid who loves football, this is one of our fellow players and here he is behind bars. Loves the game so much that he’s prepared to play with other prisoners just to play a game.”
Foster also passed on a message from Araibi to his wife.
“Please tell the Australian government that if I must go back [to Bahrain] I’ll never see her again … to my wife, please tell the Australian government, don’t let me be sent back to Bahrain without seeing you.”
The Bahraini government told the Guardian last week that that there is “no threat to his life.”
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