Thai court extends detention of Bahraini soccer player

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Article Summary
Dissident Bahraini soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi says he would face torture if extradited to Bahrain.

A Thai court ruled Dec. 11 that a Bahraini refugee soccer player must remain in detention for a further 60 days, bringing him a step closer to extradition and likely torture back home, rights groups charge.

Thailand’s immigration department will use the period to prepare his return to Bahrain.

On Sunday, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Paye demanded the “immediate return” of Hakeem al-Araibi, who was granted refugee status in her country in 2014.

Araibi, who was detained Nov. 27 upon landing at Bangkok Airport, insists that if extradited he would face torture in Bahrain as he did back in 2012 when he was imprisoned alongside many others during a crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests against the nation's Sunni rulers.

Commenting on the court’s decision, Fatima Yazbek, a Lebanese human rights activist and member of the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, contended in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor that like many non-Sunni Muslims in the kingdom, Araibi was being hounded “for his faith.”

The 25-year-old, who is a member of Bahrain’s majority and harshly repressed Shiite population, was granted refugee status in Australia in 2014 after fleeing there. Rights groups and legal experts argue Thai authorities are violating international law by detaining Araibi, who now plays for a Melbourne team and is a legal resident there. Many air worries about a global trend among authoritarian regimes to co-opt foreign governments to send back dissidents, and Thailand has displayed quite a bit of pliancy.

In December 2014, Thai authorities extradited another Bahraini dissident, Ali Ahmed Ibrahim Haroon. According to Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, he was “severely beaten, shackled and put into a wheelchair before being forcibly placed on a flight to Bahrain.” Haroon remains in prison and, according to his family, was tortured upon his return.

Aya Majzoub, a Bahrain researcher for Human Rights Watch, called Thailand’s actions against Araibi “illegal.” Majzoub told Al-Monitor, “These [actions] constitute a clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement.” Majzoub was referring to a fundamental principle of international law that forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from sending them back home in instances where they would likely face danger of persecution based on race, religion, political views and the like. “There is a very real threat that Hakeem will face torture if he is sent back,” she said.

Buckling to mounting pressure to speak up, FIFA, soccer’s international ruling body, which has been lambasted for playing mute in the face of abusive governments, yesterday called for Araibi’s case “to be solved in accordance with well-established international standards” and for him to be sent back to Australia “at the earliest possible moment.” Controversy linked to Bahrain is nothing new for FIFA. In February 2016, the organization faced criticism when it nearly elected Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of the ruling family, as its new president. Critics decried the royal's alleged connections to the jailing and torture of Bahraini athletes who had peacefully protested the dynasty's rule during the Arab Spring in 2011.

Araibi became a bitter critic of Khalifa once he fled Bahrain. “The royal family is determined to silence all of its critics, and Hakeem’s voice was clearly too loud,” said Yazbek.

Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom that is home to the United States’ Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been sharply criticized for its poor human rights record. This includes the May 2016 deaths of five anti-government protestors in the city of Duraz and last year’s banning of the main Shiite opposition party, Al Wefaq.

In a June 2017 report, the UN’s human rights commissioner noted that “authorities have resorted to drastic measures to curb dissenting opinions such as torture, arbitrary detention, unfounded convictions, the stripping of citizenship, the use of travel bans” and “death threats.” 

Araibi had traveled with his wife to Thailand for a long-delayed honeymoon, his first holiday since gaining residency in Australia. “It was clearly a mistake; Thailand is no longer safe for any of us,” asserted Hassan Abdal Nabi, a Shiite Bahraini dissident who has gone on a hunger strike to protest Araibi’s plight. Speaking by telephone from outside the Thai Consulate in Melbourne where he joined a gaggle of protesters, Abdal Nabi told Al-Monitor that Araibi had also gone on a hunger strike after being separated by prison authorities from his wife, who had been staying with him even though she was not formally detained.

Yousif Almuhafdah, a Bahraini blogger and human rights activist who lives in exile in Berlin, shared a cell with Araibi when they were imprisoned for taking part in anti-government protests in 2012.

“He described to me how he was tortured in Al-Khamis police stations and forced into signing a phony confession,” Almuhafdah told Al-Monitor. Araibi maintained that he had been jailed because of his brother's political activities. The latter, Emad al-Araibi, remains in Bahraini prison, Almuhafdah said.

Bahraini authorities have since sentenced the athlete to 10 years in absentia for allegedly vandalizing a police station in 2014. Araibi insists he was playing a match that was broadcast live at the time of the purported crime and there is archived footage to prove it. The soccer player says police used duress to extract false testimony against him from his brother.

Almuhafdah lamented what he called the lack of international interest in the footballer. He pointed to President Donald Trump’s continued support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the face of dogged assertions from the CIA that he was likely linked to the Oct. 2 slaying of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. “The message to repressive regimes is that no matter their extremes, they get a pass,” he said.

Almuhafdah also recalled Trump’s comments during his meeting with Bahrain’s king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, in Riyadh in May 2017. Trump assured the king, "There won’t be a strain with this administration. We’re going to have a very, very long-term relationship. I look forward to it very much; [we have] many of the same things in common.” Bahrain, much like its top regional ally, Saudi Arabia, regards Iran as its archfoe and is delighted with Trump’s campaign against the Islamic Republic. 

In June, Lockheed Martin received a $1.2 billion contract from the US government to produce 16 state-of-the-art F-16 Block 70 aircraft for the royal Bahraini air force, making the kingdom the first customer to acquire the jets. The sales had been held up due to human rights concerns by the Obama administration.

The State Department has yet to comment on Araibi’s plight.

Update: Dec. 11, 2018. This article was updated on Dec. 11 when a Thai court ruled to extend Araibi's detention.

Found in: Human rights

Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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