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A THAI court bowed under unrelenting pressure and ordered the release of refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi today after prosecutors said they were no longer seeking his extradition to Bahrain.
Thailand’s U-turn comes a week after a Thai judge sent Araibi back to prison, giving his legal team 60 days to prepare their defence before the next stage in the extradition process commenced.
Australia’s government, sporting bodies and human rights groups protested for weeks and demanded Thailand send Araibi back to Australia, where he has refugee status and plays semi-professional football.
Australia’s Prime Minister praised the decision and said that Araibi was on his way to the airport.
“Now the next step is for him to return home,” Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “But as always in these cases, people aren’t home until they’re home.”
Thai prosecutors today submitted to court a request to withdraw the case to extradite Araibi to Bahrain, where he faces a 10-year prison sentence for an arson attack that damaged a police station. He has denied those charges and says the case is politically motivated.
Prosecutors made the decision after Thailand’s Foreign Ministry sent their department a letter today morning that indicated that Bahrain had withdrawn its request for Araibi, said Chatchom Akapin, the director general of the attorney general office’s international affairs department. Officials in Bahrain said the country “reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against” Araibi.
It was not immediately clear what prompted Bahrain to withdraw its request.
Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement after his release that the “guilty verdict against Mr Araibi remains in place and Mr Araibi holds the right to appeal this court verdict at Bahrain’s Court of Appeal.”
Araibi, 25, a former Bahraini national team player, says he fled Bahrain due to political repression and that he fears torture if he returns.
He has said he was blindfolded and had his legs beaten while he was held in Bahrain previously. He said he believed he was targeted for arrest because of his Shi’ite faith and because his brother was politically active in Bahrain. Bahrain has a Shi’ite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy.
His supporters had said he should be freed and was protected under his status as a refugee with Australian residency. He was detained at the request of Bahrain relayed through Interpol upon his arrival in Bangkok in November while on honeymoon with his wife.
Activists praised today’s developments.
“This is a huge victory for the human rights movement in Bahrain, Thailand and Australia — and even the whole world,” said Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. “Hakeem’s ordeal ended after 70 days when there was a clear public stance and solidarity movement.
“The football community, the human rights movement and all of those who dedicated their time and efforts to end this injustice were rewarded.
“Let’s continue the fight to release all political prisoners who languish in Bahrain’s prisons.”
Former Australia national team captain Craig Foster, who has been leading the campaign for Araibi’s release, praised all those who worked on the campaign.
“Many wonderful people stepped forward to help Hakeem,” he wrote today in comments on Twitter. “They all deserve to be in front of camera now, not only me. I can’t list them, but will thank each of them in time. My thoughts are with Hakeem’s wife. Her nightmare will shortly be at an end. Our prayers answered.”
Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement last week that Araibi was detained because Australian authorities had forwarded them an Interpol Red Notice that Bahrain was seeking his arrest. Australian police acknowledge doing so, but there have been questions raised about why the Red Notice appeared to have been issued just before Araibi departed on his trip, and whether Bahraini authorities had been tipped off about his travel plans.
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