Hakeem al-Araibi on his time in a Bangkok jail and the global campaign to set him free

Hakeem al-Araibi on his time in a Bangkok jail and the global campaign to set him free
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The shackles did it. Hakeem al-Araibi didn’t know it at the time, but in the moments after he stepped off a white prison bus and limped down a gloomy tunnel and into the back entrance of Bangkok’s Ratchadaphisek criminal court, leg irons restricting his gait, his freedom was all but secured. The grim irony of a man famous for what he can do with his feet having his legs chained drove home to a watching world the awfulness of his incarceration and proved a turning point in his quest for freedom.

Soccer player, Bahrain-born refugee, international media sensation: al-Araibi was all that when, seven days later, on February 11, 2019, he was released from prison and taken to Bangkok airport for a flight straight home to Melbourne. A month later, he added another altogether more important label to his identity: Australian citizen.

Hakeem al-Araibi: “I not angry about Federal Police, because they work in Australia, and I love Australia.”

Hakeem al-Araibi: “I not angry about Federal Police, because they work in Australia, and I love Australia.”Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen

I’m sitting across from al-Araibi in the small boardroom of the soccer players’ union, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA), in West Melbourne. It’s a sunny morning in early March, and al-Araibi looks like any footballer on a day off. About 185 centimetres tall, with a toned body that hints at an athlete’s coiled power, the 25-year-old is dressed casually in a black windcheater and three-quarter-length tan shorts. His feet are clad in immaculate black Nike sneakers, his jawline accentuated by a beard neatly trimmed to about five days’ growth.

His appearance belies what he went through over summer, after he was arrested in late November upon arriving in Bangkok for a long-awaited honeymoon with his wife. Australian officials had notified Thai officials of al-Araibi’s looming arrival in Thailand after an Interpol Red Notice, a form of arrest warrant, had been issued by Bahrain, requesting he be returned to the country of his birth. (This was despite al-Araibi’s status as a protected refugee; Canberra is now “reviewing its procedures”.) Thai police were waiting for him when his plane landed. The extradition notice was related to charges dating back to the vandalism of a Bahrain police station in 2012 – the very events that forced al-Araibi (who denied being involved) to seek refugee status in Australia in 2014.

He jumps up when I walk in and grins widely. “It’s good to see you again.” We’ve met twice before, in the visitor rooms of Bangkok’s Remand Prison, where we spoke on battered prison phones, separated by perspex and iron bars. The chain of events and the disparate cast of human rights campaigners, footballers, government and sporting officials that got him from there to here is scarcely believable. We’ll get to that, but first I want to know what it’s like to spend 76 days in various Thai jails.

Initially, al-Araibi says, he was buoyed by the fact his wife remained with him in Bangkok, able in the early days to share a “family” cell with him at the airport detention centre. “I was crying inside … I was scared, but she give me energy every day,” he says. “This is why I’m OK, because my wife still with me.” After he was moved out of there, al-Araibi and his wife spent time in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre. Eventually, the footballer ended up in Bangkok Remand Prison, about 20 kilometres from the centre of the Thai capital, where the couple were split up. Fearful for his wife alone in Bangkok, he insisted in mid-December that she fly home to Melbourne. That’s when the grim reality of his situation really hit him.

“I have no family visit me here, I don’t know what is going on, I have no phone, I don’t know what is happening outside,” he recalls. “New Year’s, I was thinking about my wife, I should stay with my wife. I was scared.”

Al-Araibi grows animated as he describes the long, lonely weeks inside the remand prison. “Forty people, they live together, three blankets for the room. We sleep on the ground. The toilet is like this [he raises his hand to show it is high off the ground] and I am tall. We stay 16 hours in the room without food; just drink water. Eight hours outside. Yeah, it was hard,” he says. “I have space like this [he gestures a rectangular shape], maybe one metre. If I turn around, I touch another person. And no airconditioning, so it was hot.”

He asks for my pen and paper and starts to sketch the rectangular jail cell. “Here, this is the toilet. We sleep like here, many people here [side-by-side, in rows]. Maybe 30 people here, maybe five or six people here [at the other end of the cell from the toilet]. The room leader, this one [a position sleeping farthest away from the toilet]. He assign. This half of room, old person [people who have been there for longer] and this half, new people. Closer to the toilet, and here [above the toilet] the TV. Everyone watch TV. When you go to toilet, everyone watch you. It’s open. It’s hard. When I take off my clothes, everyone watch me.”

Hakeem al-Araibi in detention at Bangkok airport.

Hakeem al-Araibi in detention at Bangkok airport. Credit:AAP

His wife is here in the West Melbourne office with him, playing with her pink iPhone, which has Daisy Duck on the cover and doesn’t stop buzzing. She’s 24, with big brown eyes and a pretty face framed by a simple black headscarf. She’s more styled up than her husband, wearing a striped, long-sleeved dress that falls all the way to her feet and extends to neatly pressed cuffs at her wrists. She’s friendly but reserved at first, not wanting to step into the limelight or take away from her husband’s story. She’s here for moral support, speaking only on the proviso that she not be identified, for fear of what might happen to her family in Bahrain if she is.

To judge by the way she looks at her husband, you’d think he’d walked back in the door only five minutes ago. We’ve been talking for about 30 minutes when she opens up for the first time. I’ve just asked al-Araibi if he’s angry with the Australian Federal Police officials who (figuratively) rubber-stamped the Interpol Red Notice issued by Bahrain, which should not have happened as – under international conventions – refugees cannot be forcibly returned to the country from which they’ve fled. “I meet many people this country, I see how this country work hard about my case,” al-Araibi says. “I not angry about Federal Police, because they work in Australia, and I love Australia.”

I get the feeling he’s hedging, that he’s still a little wary of criticising government – any government – but his wife is having none of it. “I am angry, because it is a dangerous mistake,” she says. “Maybe they [Bahrain] take him, after that, how will they [Australia] fix it when he back to Bahrain? His life, it will end, and my life also here will end. He is all my family here.”

Will he talk to a lawyer? Sue the government? “No, no,” he says. “Some people told me, ‘Talk with a lawyer,’ but I told them, ‘No,’ because I love this country.”

I take in the pair of them for a moment. They both have perfect white teeth and immaculate fingernails, and they look so young. They don’t quite finish each other’s sentences, but sometimes he answers for her; on other occasions, she answers for him. As one speaks, the other watches and nods. It is utterly without affectation.

Since his return to Australia on February 12, the couple has focused on getting back to normal life as quickly as possible. They attended a “welcome home” at Parliament House in Canberra with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and a host of other MPs. He sat the test for Australian citizenship, got 100 per cent and, in mid-March, was granted citizenship (al-Araibi’s wife has about two more years to wait for her citizenship, the couple says). They took a short holiday to Hamilton Island in Queensland – a honeymoon, if you like, of the kind they were on their way to last year before the Thai police intervened.

He resumed soccer training and has already played his first match for the year with his team, Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale FC. Previously, al-Araibi worked as a cabinet maker, then as an Uber driver, to make ends meet while playing soccer. Now, he says, he’s determined to put everything into his football. “Before, I work hard just for money. Now I want to work for my future.”

“I came here, I will see the country first. I am not thinking about [becoming an] asylum seeker before I come to Australia. I just want to play football with an A-League club. I think this country is a good country for the future.”

“I came here, I will see the country first. I am not thinking about [becoming an] asylum seeker before I come to Australia. I just want to play football with an A-League club. I think this country is a good country for the future.”Credit: Kristoffer Paulsen

Hakeem al-Araibi was born in 1993 in Bahrain, a tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf that’s home to about 1.5 million people. He’s the second youngest of nine children (four brothers and five sisters). His father died when he was young and his mother raised the brood with the help of her older children. Al-Araibi was always conscious they were members of the country’s majority Shia Muslim population, which for decades had been politically and economically disenfranchised by the Sunni minority that rules Bahrain, led by the al-Khalifa royal family. To be Shia in Bahrain is to be discriminated against, and to miss out on opportunities that Sunni countrymen take for granted.

A sporty kid, al-Araibi played in Bahrain’s premier soccer league, starring as a hard-tackling right back or centre back with his club, al-Shabab, and for the country’s national under-23s team. A highlights reel from the time shows a fine selection of deft sliding tackles, headers and interceptions. On November 7, 2012, his 19th birthday and four days after he took to the field with al-Shabab in an away game at al-Muharraq stadium, Bahraini police arrested him. A police station had been attacked at 8pm on the Saturday night of the match, and they alleged he was involved; the police also claiming al-Araibi was at a meeting of the conspirators/attackers at 6pm.

“I was with my friends; some coffee, celebrations, my birthday,” al-Araibi tells me in Melbourne. “I am back [home] around 12, midnight, they arrest me because I have no ID. Just no ID. They take me to the police station because they didn’t know who am I. Some people knew I was Hakeem, because I played national team when I was young. And Bahrain is a small country. They knew I was Hakeem, I Shia, I play football.”

Early in 2011, in a flow-on from the Arab Spring uprisings and anti-government protests that spread across the Middle East from late 2010, the country’s Shia majority had demanded greater rights and equality. This rebellion was quashed with help from nearby Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with martial law declared and numerous protesters detained and tortured, but tensions remained. Bahraini authorities alleged that al-Araibi and numerous other individuals, including his oldest brother, Emad, were responsible for the attacks on the police station. The specific charges levelled against al-Araibi, according to the arrest warrant, were arson, illegal gathering and rioting, and possession of flammable materials.

“They took me to another police station; five hours they beat me. They told me bad words about my religion. It was five hours. Five hours, they didn’t ask me what I did.” Al-Araibi has told the story many times before, but the anger in his eyes is still white-hot. His voice quivers and his English becomes more disjointed as he struggles to impart what it felt like to have security forces assault him and threaten to take away his livelihood, his future. His wife watches him, transfixed, occasionally offering a comment to help clarify a point. She’s heard the story enough times to have a sense of shared ownership over it.

“They put cold water on my body; they told me, they say, ‘Talk what you did.’ Five people was on my body. They put my leg like this.” Al-Araibi stands up and attempts to contort his body. “It was five hours. When they ask me, ‘You did fire on police station, 3rd of November …’, I said I was playing in Muharraq stadium, against another team in Bahrain. They told me, ‘You are lying.’ I said, ‘I have video, go to check, and come back.’ “

Accounts differ as to when the football game started. In a 2012 statement, the Bahrain Football Association said it kicked off at 5.30pm and finished at 7.30pm. Al-Araibi’s club says the game began at 5.45pm and finished at 7.45pm – and that al-Araibi left the stadium on the club bus at 8pm, arrived at his home ground at 8.40pm, and contacted another brother, Murteza, at 9.10pm to be picked up and taken home.

Regardless of whether the game finished at 7.30pm or 7.45pm, al-Araibi and his supporters have always maintained it was physically impossible for the footballer to be simultaneously playing in a game broadcast on live TV and attending a meeting at 6pm in which he helped plan an attack on a police station. They further point out that even if the game finished at 7.15pm, that would leave al-Araibi just 45 minutes to shake hands with his opponents, shower, change and slip away unnoticed so he could drive the 20 or so kilometres across town (he didn’t own a car at the time) to the police station on a busy Saturday night, to participate in the attack at 8pm.

Al-Araibi spent nearly four months in jail, eventually being released on bail on February 6, 2013. At this point he had been charged, but not convicted, and was awaiting trial. He resumed playing soccer, and by late 2013 was in the squad for the country’s senior team, which would play in the January 2014 Asian Cup in Qatar. Al-Araibi travelled to Qatar for that tournament – which is when his life changed forever.

“On January 5, my friend, he call me and told me, ‘The Bahrain government charge [sentence] you 10 years, in the jail [for the police station attack in 2012].’ I surprised and decide to go to another country.” The days when football acted as a bridge between Bahrain’s Shia and Sunni communities were fading. “The judge who give me 10 years, he is from Bahrain government family.”

Convicted in absentia, al-Araibi booked a flight that took him to Iran, a majority-Shia country, then Malaysia, where he spent several months. He even took a short trip to Thailand, holidaying in Phuket with friends he had made in Malaysia. “I was thinking to study English in Malaysia, but it not safe. I want to play football but if I play football there, Bahrain know.”

On May 5, 2014, al-Araibi travelled to Australia. “I came here, I will see the country first. I am not thinking about [becoming an] asylum seeker before I come to Australia. I just want to play football with an A-League club. I think this country is a good country for the future.” On June 2, he applied for asylum, and received a bridging visa to remain here. His request for asylum was granted on November 30, 2017.

Al-Araibi wanted to play for Melbourne Victory and tried out with the A-League team, but places for foreign players in the top competition are scarce, so he began playing for semi-professional clubs in Victoria’s National Premier Leagues – first Melbourne’s Green Gully, then Shepparton’s Goulburn Valley Suns, before moving in May 2018 to his current club of Pascoe Vale, based in the northern Melbourne suburb of the same name.

Vitale Ferrante, al-Araibi’s coach at Pascoe Vale FC, says he is a reliable, consistent defender with the ability to play for an A-League club. “Very hard to beat. Does the job that you want a defender to do. He is quick. Strong physically. He is also strong mentally.” Al-Araibi’s teammate Gonzalo Abascal, who would visit the footballer in jail in early January, sums up his friend: “He’s a bull.”

During this period, two other major developments took place in al-Araibi’s life. In late 2015, he came into contact with Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, a Bahraini political refugee who lives in Britain and is the director of advocacy for a London-based human rights organisation, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. And in late 2016, al-Araibi began courting his wife via the medium of his generation, social media; she was then living in Bahrain. They married in Melbourne in early 2017.

“She was thinking about study here. I explain about the future, this country, I want to stay with her and not go back to Bahrain, that’s why I explain about the future [in] this country, it’s good future for us. That’s why she decided to stay in Australia.” She smiles and nods.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei had been at the forefront of the February 2011 protests in Bahrain, and was detained in March that year for six months. Eventually freed, he began protesting again but after six months fled to London, where he sought asylum. At the time, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, was president of the country’s football association. Later, he would become president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and a vice-president of soccer’s international governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).

In October 2015, Sheikh Salman made a bid for the FIFA presidency. Alwadaei began researching his role targeting athletes involved in Bahrain’s anti-government protests. That led him to al-Araibi, who was slowly building his life in Australia. “When Salman announced he was targeting the FIFA presidency, I began looking for footballers who suffered torture or abuse,” Alwadaei tells me via phone from London. “I came across Hakeem’s name, I got in touch with him and started to understand his story.”

Alwadaei began teeing up media interviews for al-Araibi to talk about Sheikh Salman and his role in helping to identify and detain athletes supposedly involved in the protests that began in 2011. The first interview he can recall al-Araibi giving was with Britain’s ITV News, on November 3, 2015, in which he detailed the torture he received in prison in Bahrain. Subsequent interviews he gave to The New York Times, The Guardian and to German TV had a damaging effect on Salman’s FIFA candidacy. In the NYT interview, for example, al-Araibi again detailed the torture he had endured at the hands of Bahraini authorities – and accused Salman of not assisting his lawyers and sisters, who had helped confirm his soccer match alibi.

In February 2016, Salman was beaten to the top job at FIFA by Swiss-Italian Gianni Infantino, who took over from the long-serving and controversial Sepp Blatter, though the sheikh has remained a senior vice-president.

Speaking today, al-Araibi says he was very worried about his family back in Bahrain after the interviews, but that nothing has thus far happened to them. He says he is more careful now about what he says to journalists and in posts on social media, believing the interviews he gave in 2015 and 2016 made him a marked man. “Bahrain want me when I talk about Salman, 2016, in Australia. This is the real case they want. Bahrain government doesn’t want anyone talk against them. I been in Malaysia, I went to Thailand as well [in 2014], they didn’t care about me.”

He adds that in 2016, when he talked about Salman, the Bahraini authorities were taking note. They were well aware of him before he went to Thailand, he says. “They want to revenge me because I talk about this person [Salman]. He want the FIFA president in 2016, he lost; this is why Bahrain government angry about me.” It’s a view widely shared by his supporters and friends.

At 7.50pm on November 27, 2018, Jetstar flight JQ29 landed in Bangkok. Al-Araibi and his wife were on board, destined for a week-long delayed honeymoon. He chose Thailand over contenders Queensland and Bali because he’d been there before and thought it was beautiful. “I want my wife to see how Thailand is a beautiful country.”

Al-Araibi’s wife clearly remembers the moment her husband was arrested. “They came in the plane, and they take Hakeem and ask him, ‘You are Hakeem al-Araibi?’ He say yes. They tell him, ‘Come with us.’

“They just have the picture, he is young, I don’t know how they know him. There are maybe 20 police around us and they just take photo of us, and video.”

Al-Araibi pulls out his wallet and shows me what looks like a probationary driver’s licence, issued in Bahrain when he was 16. This is the photo Thai police were brandishing, he says.

Police tried to separate the couple, but they refused and eventually the police acceded, instead charging the equivalent of $150 so the couple could stay together in one of the airport’s “family” cells for the first seven nights. Several further payments of $50 a pop greased the wheels so they could stay together longer, until he was sent to Bangkok Remand Prison.

It was in the airport detention centre’s stark “family room”, with wooden bunk beds, that al-Araibi gave his first interview as a detainee, a video call with SBS World News, on November 29. “I’m a refugee in Australia now. I just want to go to Australia. I don’t want to stay here,” al-Araibi said, in a refrain he would repeat dozens of times in the months to come. His country, Bahrain, “want to kill me”.

Before his phone was taken away, al-Araibi managed to call Alwadaei in London. His fellow Bahraini swung into action, sending a detailed email to a host of human rights organisations including the UN High Commission for Refugees. A few weeks later, Alwadaei tracked down and shared footage of the game al-Araibi was playing in on the night he allegedly took part in the police station attack. It showed al-Araibi on the field until the end of the match, right up to and including the moment when the two teams shook hands after the game. It was a compelling argument for al-Araibi’s innocence.

Twice, in those early days of detention, al-Araibi says he was told by Thai officials to buy plane tickets home to Australia for he and his wife. He did so, but twice he was stopped from leaving at the last minute by those same Thai immigration officials.

Although al-Araibi didn’t know the details at the time, through December and on into January an unlikely coalition was assembling, working to apply maximum pressure on Thailand, Bahrain and FIFA to secure his freedom. On December 9, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne weighed in, publicly calling on her Thai counterpart, Don Pramudwinai, to release al-Araibi. The request fell on deaf ears.

Al-Araibi’s Bangkok-based lawyer, Nadthasiri Bergman, expected the footballer to be detained for at least six months while the extradition request made its way through the Thai legal system, but was optimistic of his eventual release. “It was just a question of how long he would have to stay,” she says. “It is clear there is a way out for Thailand from the beginning.”

A-League fans show their support.

A-League fans show their support.Credit:Getty Images

Others were not so upbeat. Professional Footballers Australia chief executive John Didulica and Brendan Schwab, the Australian Switzerland-based head of the World Players Association and a former PFA boss, were worried that with Christmas looming, al-Araibi’s case could fall off the radar. On December 22, they held a press conference in Melbourne at which representatives from various human rights and football organisations spoke, along with a couple of soccer stars. One of them was former Socceroo, now SBS commentator, Craig Foster.

“Australia’s footballers implore FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation to comply with their own rules of governance to demand the return of Hakeem to Australia,” Foster said. “FIFA and the AFC have a constitutional obligation to not only observe the human rights of their participants but proactively promote such rights. We now implore FIFA and the AFC to live this obligation.”

An urbane midfielder who played for the national team from 1996 to 2000, Foster is good-looking, eloquent and, importantly, a known, respected face. Along with the #SaveHakeem hashtag, he became the public face of the campaign. He can’t recall when he first heard of the case, but proffers multiple reasons for why he became so involved. “He is a fellow player,” Foster says. “As a former player, and international, we have an obligation to help other generations. If we didn’t stand up for him, who would? He was a refugee, which means more vulnerable and helpless than most, who had already been tortured. The thought of this occurring again was something none of us could countenance.”

When he read al-Araibi’s case history, “I knew he was in very deep trouble, because football would never come to his aid adequately. All acts would be superficial, designed not to damage political relationships.” He includes Football Federation Australia, the Asian Football Confederation [AFC] and FIFA in that stinging assessment.

“I felt for him because he had felt safe enough in Australia to speak out against [Sheikh] Salman, at age just 23, was a very brave kid, and this had clearly rebounded on him several years later. Australia was, in part, implicated; it was clear the AFP’s involvement was problematic. We owed him, in my view.”

As December gave way to January 2019, another refugee, a Saudi woman named Rahaf al-Qunun, made international headlines after barricading herself in her Bangkok airport hotel room and demanding to be allowed to finish her journey to Australia, and asylum. Her case came and went in the blink of an eye. Having been detained on January 5, she was on her way to Canada and a new life by January 11, having been granted refugee status there after a global social media wave generated bad headlines for the Thai government. Afterwards, a Saudi official in Bangkok told a Thai counterpart: “I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than [taking] her passport,” referring to the huge number of Twitter followers al-Qunun amassed in just a few days.

Her swift success was noticed by those seeking to free al-Araibi. But as his campaign geared up, tension emerged about the best way to pursue his freedom. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is famously risk-averse when it comes to such high-profile consular cases, generally preferring to keep quiet and work behind the scenes. A growing number of advocates for al-Araibi were frustrated with this softly, softly approach: they felt Thailand needed the blowtorch applied, publicly; al-Qunun’s case proved the point.

As Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson, a laconic American who is fluent in Thai and who has worked in the country for decades, explains it: “There was reluctance within DFAT, not just the Australian embassy in Bangkok, to conduct the pressure campaign needed to get Hakeem released. They needed to lead the diplomatic community here. I had a senior ambassador say to me, ‘Someone needs to talk to them and explain what they need to do. They need to take the lead.'”

In Thai custody in early February.

In Thai custody in early February.Credit:AAP

In January, Foster visited al-Araibi in prison for the first time. So, too, did the Bangkok-based Australian Evan Jones, from the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, who’d heard about the case from a friend who’d shared a cell with al-Araibi in early December. Jones – who, at over 180 centimetres tall, with red hair and a thick, bushy beard, stands out like a sore thumb in Bangkok – began visiting al-Araibi regularly in prison, depositing money in his prison bank account so he had access to (slightly) better food, co-ordinating with the disparate groups working on the case and bringing journalists to prison to meet the soccer player. All up, he estimates he made 15 trips to the prison in about a month.

“I didn’t know his full name, I didn’t know which prison he was in – I googled ‘Bangkok prison’ – and I didn’t know what his detainee number was,” Jones explains. “So I turned up, they showed me a pic and I said, ‘That’s him.’ I said he was a friend of mine. They said no worries, I went in and spoke to him 20 minutes later.”

Al-Araibi doesn’t mind admitting he’d never heard of either Foster or Jones until they visited him in jail. He breaks out in a big smile as he recalls the upswing in visitors after the dog days of December and early January. “Evan, he told me he work with refugees, he from Australia. He work hard, I love him. He come to visit me. When he not coming, I miss him.” Foster, he says, made a commitment he’ll never forget. “No one [else] promise me – just Craig – he promised [I will go] back to Australia. He told me he will travel to many countries to make pressure.” Al-Araibi’s wife chimes in: “He is a fantastic man. He told me, ‘Don’t worry, we will fight till the end and we will do all the best.'”

FIFA and the AFC initially made anaemic statements about being “aware” of al-Araibi’s situation and urging a resolution. Foster and Schwab knew they needed to apply the blowtorch to them, too. Foster was soon zigzagging around the world, to Bangkok to meet al-Araibi, and on to Zurich and Amsterdam to meet with officials from FIFA and FIFPro, the world players’ union. Along the way, he lobbied for legends of the game such as Gary Lineker and Didier Drogba to lend social media support to the cause. He fronted more press conferences, began tweeting vociferously, and attended rallies like the one held on January 10 on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, at which dozens demanded al-Araibi’s release. The social media momentum was all in one direction.

The PFA’s John Didulica says Foster’s decision to get involved was enormously consequential. “Fozz was just a champion for Hakeem, he is so articulate and has such a big platform,” Didulica says. “We felt that we as a football community had a duty to protect Hakeem. That’s how we could distinguish Hakeem’s case from others: he was a footballer, he had spoken out as a footballer against Sheikh Salman, so we had a duty to protect him.”

Meanwhile, in Bangkok, Australian ambassador-designate Allan McKinnon and Chargé d’Affaires Paul Stephens had been let off the leash by Canberra. The diplomats had both met with Foster (who was also speaking directly to Marise Payne), and had the green light to begin an all-out lobbying campaign of the Thai government and other embassies once PM Scott Morrison had contacted Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha to directly lobby for al-Araibi’s release.

By the time al-Araibi arrived at Bangkok’s Ratchadaphisek court on February 4, his feet shackled, the world’s media were waiting. “The police inside the bus … he told me, ‘When we arrive, sit and don’t come with the people, I will let you come late,’ ” al-Araibi recalls. For a few precious seconds, as he finally stepped off the bus, the only sound he heard was the click, click, click of cameras. Finally, the silence was broken.

“Hakeem, how do you feel?” shouted a reporter. “Please don’t send me back to Bahrain, they will torture me,” he half-shouted back.

Foster’s voice then rang out above the questions. “Your wife sends her love, Australia is with you, your wife sends her love, all of Australia is with you. Be strong, buddy.”

Foster had brought back to Bangkok with him Francis Awaritefe, another former Socceroo and a FIFPro vice-president. FIFA’s head of sustainability, Federico Addiechi, was also in court, as were embassy representatives from not only Australia but the US, Canada, Britain, Switzerland, Germany, France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, Holland, Belgium and the European Union. The presence of FIFA and all those embassies underscored the diplomatic headache now faced by the Thais – one that wasn’t going to go away.

For nearly an hour, as ceiling fans turned overhead, lawyers for each side went back and forth before the judge. Al-Araibi confirmed he would fight the extradition order, and his next court date was set for April 23.

As the court dispersed, the state prosecutor’s office briefed incredulous journalists and embassy officials that the executive branch of government (that is, PM Prayut) had the power to intervene and set al-Araibi free at any time, if it so desired. That was enough for Australia’s ambassador-designate Allan McKinnon, who walked out the door of the court room, took a lift down to the ground floor and, flanked by al-Araibi’s lawyer Bergman and a phalanx of officials from other embassies, delivered a bravura performance that was way too direct to have come from any DFAT manual.

The thought of Hakeem being tortured again was something none of us could countenance.

Craig Foster

“We are asking Prime Minister Prayut to allow Hakeem al-Araibi to return to Australia,” he told reporters. “He is a refugee; allow him to return to Australia to his friends and his family and the Australian community. We understand from the public announcement from the Office of the Attorney-General on Friday that there is executive authority with the Thai government to cease this case at any time. This was confirmed by the prosecutor in comments today.”

The story out of court that day, accompanied by the all-important photos of al-Araibi arriving in shackles, went around the world. The BBC, CNN and al-Jazeera all ran it, as did the Bangkok Post, albeit the latter with the shackles airbrushed out. As Yahya al-Hadid from the Melbourne-based Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights – one of the first groups to campaign for al-Araibi’s freedom – would later tell me, approximately 300,000 “#SaveHakeem” tweets were sent from November 27 to February 4. After the pictures of al-Araibi in shackles were published, an estimated 1 million #SaveHakeem tweets followed, including 400,000 in Thailand alone. The footballer had gone viral.

Over the next two days, sections of the Thai government mounted a rear-guard action, attempting to publicly blame Australia for the entire mess and claiming the Red Notice had been issued by Canberra. While Australian officials had made a major mistake, few bought the Thai spin that it was all Australia’s fault. Sections of the Thai government started talking to those working on al-Araibi’s case, while others insisted the government’s hands were tied and that the case had to play out in the courts. Rumours emerged that the royal household was looking on, alarmed.

On Saturday, February 9, Australian divers Richard Harris and Craig Challen, who had led the 2018 Thai cave rescue of a young boys’ soccer team to global acclaim, wrote to the Thai PM, asking for al-Araibi’s release. Over that weekend, Prayut spoke to Bahrain’s PM, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, and Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai was sent to Bahrain’s capital, Manama, to meet with Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the Crown Prince, and the PM. These actions signalled to the Bahrainis that Thailand no longer wanted to be in the middle of this mess. The price was too high.

Craig Foster and media flank Hakeem al-Araibi on his return to Australia.

Craig Foster and media flank Hakeem al-Araibi on his return to Australia.Credit:Getty Images

Late on Monday morning, February 11, al-Araibi was told he would be heading home to Melbourne. He didn’t believe it; the Thais had said so before. But this time it was true. All the usual processes, such as a trip to the immigration detention centre, were skipped. At about 4pm, al-Araibi was taken straight to the airport, where he was rushed through customs and taken to a VIP lounge, where he had a shower. “No lawyer, no Australian embassy. They take me straight to the airport.” He wasn’t sure until a couple of hours before boarding whether he was destined for Bahrain or Melbourne.

“I take phone of the police, I speak to my wife, she tell me everyone is waiting for me in Australia. I OK, comfortable now. Just two hours before.”

Reflecting on the whole saga, Foster says the international soccer community “acts to the tune of money, influence and power”, and that it was thanks to the combined actions of a whole lot of groups and organisations that this standard rule was subverted. “It is a wonderful example of people power creating the ground for action,” he says.

With Scott Morrison in March.

With Scott Morrison in March.Credit:AAP

He is similarly blunt in his assessment of the Australian government’s efforts. “Marise Payne felt strongly about the case, although Scott Morrison was slow to offer direct support. In fairness to Scott, when he decided to act, he did so effectively. The ambassador-designate in Bangkok [Allan McKinnon] was outstanding, in my view, and we worked closely throughout on a number of levels.” Al-Araibi’s case became increasingly “real” for people, Foster says. He wasn’t just a faceless refugee, but rather, a footballer from the Melbourne suburbs. The campaign gave al-Araibi a name, and an identity.

There was one final, bizarre twist. As guards led al-Araibi to the airport gate – beyond which, on the air-bridge, his new friend Evan Jones was waiting for him, to sit with him on the flight home – he was presented with a soccer ball. One of the guards wanted his autograph.

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.





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