Bahrein soccer player Hakeem Al-Araibi has Australian residency, has lived here for four years but has been held in a Thai prison for sixty days. He was arrested in Bangkok because an Interpol Red Alert warrant indicated that he was wanted by Bahrein authorities, in effect the royal family, for allegedly vandalizing a police station. The charge is spurious.
Television footage shows Hakeem playing in a soccer match when damage to the police station was supposed to have occurred. Nevertheless, he was sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison.
In this deceitful, unethical, illegal saga, the people who should be in the dock are the operators who have put Hakeem in a Thai prison and kept him there. The perpetrators of injustice include the government of Bahrein, Thai military and courts, powerful football officials and representatives of the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Taken before a court of human decency, this is what a prosecutor would say.
Powerful Operators Stand Accused
Bahrein’s government is vicious. Reports from Human Rights Watch show that torture and forced disappearance are common, civilians are tried by military courts, the only independent newspaper has been shut down and the death penalty restored. Hakeem has good reason to fear being returned to Bahrein where he’s certain he’ll be imprisoned and tortured again.
Thailand’s stereotype reputation as ‘the land of smiles’, inhabited by people who are said to be ‘helpful, courteous and kind’, is drowning in the sour mix of Bahrein, Thai and international soccer politics.
Thailand’s military government is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, is used to giving orders and having them obeyed. Admitting to weakness or wrong doing is not in the military ideology and certainly not in their rule books. The values and language of human rights must be as confusing to their officers as they are to Bahrein authorities.
These accusations demand a caveat. The prosecutor’s case should not be overstated. Even within in an authoritarian culture there are exceptions to the rule. Thailand’s Chief of Immigration Police, Major General Suruchate Hakparn has stated that he would not return anyone to a country where their life would be in danger and that Thailand ‘will adhere to human rights under the rule of law.’
Obsessed with financial gain, the leaders of international soccer organisations are also neck deep in the mire of human rights abuses. The Asian Football Conference (AFC) have not defended Hakeem. Their President, a member of the Bahrein royal family, Sheikh Salman bin Abrahim Al Khalifa, has ducked under the cover of the excuse that sport and politics don’t mix; and he may be seeking revenge against Hakeem who several years ago had questioned his human rights record.
The President of the international football federation (FIFA),Gianni Infantino, has played an unethical role, or has attempted to play no role at all. Instead of being an influential advocate for Hakeem, he has stayed silent. This multi-lingual official moves in prestigious circles and knows how to curry favours. Even if he fears to speak of human rights, Infantino could at least say something about sportsmanship.
The Australian government’s Department of Home Affairs has confirmed that the Red Alert for Hakeem’s arrest came from Australia. Members of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) issued the document even though Interpol’s regulations say that such Red Notices will not be issued if the status of a refugee (Hakeem in this case ) has been confirmed.
It looks as though, in a Canberra AFP office, automaton-like staff, somewhat preoccupied with reporting on terrorist suspects did just that. Grateful Thai police, perhaps with the same mindset as the Canberra coppers, appeared to have gratefully received the Red Alert. It also needs to be explained how Bahrein authorities knew of Hakeem’s travel plans.
Tarred With The Same Brush
These powerful but usually invisible operators stand before a court. They are tarred with the same brush, their careers characterised by throwing their weight around. Familiar with the use of force, they are practised at dobbing people in and having them arrested. They defer to higher authorities.
Sheikh Salman, Gianni Infantino, Thai military personnel and members of the Australian Federal police are playing in the same team, controlling information, passing it to one another, scoring goals (often own goals) by locking people up, and they pack their defence to prevent others from scoring.
In January 2019, when the Saudi Arabian teenager Rahaf Aqunun flew into Bangkok and sought asylum, she received prompt humanitarian treatment. As soon as she had been credited by the UN to be a refugee, she was on her way to safety and freedom in Canada.
An equally innocent refugee abroad, Hakeem Al-Araibi has been detained because officials like to play quasi legal games and because of the financial leverage which Bahrein may have on the Thai economy. If returned to Bahrein, Hakeem faces the prospect of torture and further imprisonment. One of his Thai lawyers has made the preposterous prediction that court processes to decide his future could last for a year.
Hakeem is a victim of the shameful conduct of the government of Bahrein, of Thai military authorities, of leaders of football organisations and as a result of the irresponsible decisions by members of the Australian Federal Police.
With enthusiastic support – no qualifications – from the Australian government, a social media storm of the kind that helped Rahaf Aqunun to freedom, also needs to be waged for Hakeem’s return to Australia.
Stuart Rees, OAM is recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize & Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney