Sheikh Salman, and Hakeem Al-Araibi’s ‘Unlawful Refoulement’

Occasionally, football and politics are inextricably linked. Ex-Bahraini international Hakeem Al-Araibi is an on-and-on-going example, the victim of some bizarre international ‘co-operation’ by Thailand, very much a ‘third country’ in a dispute ostensibly between Bahrain and Australia.

Al-Araibi, 25, plays for North-West Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale FC, of the ‘National Premier League’ (Australia’s second-tier, although it offers no promotion to the top-tier A-League), having fled from Bahrain to Australia in 2014 and been granted political asylum last year.

His latest problems began on 4th November, when he applied for a Thai tourist visa. Four days later, his visa was ready…the very day Interpol, the ‘International Criminal Police Organisation,’ granted Bahrain a ‘red notice,” requesting Al-Araibi’s arrest, pending extradition.’ So, when Al-Araibi and his wife Naqaa Sateeh arrived in Bangkok on 27th November, Thailand’s immigration bureau detained him. They reportedly intended to return him to Australia but changed tack at Bahrain’s behest. Thus he is being held in Bangkok, despite the red notice being ‘lifted’ on 3rd December.

Al-Araibi was initially arrested on 3rd November 2012, as one of 150 people who ‘vandalised’ a police station. He was held for three months and, in 2014, received a ten-year prison term (and please take time to contemplate TEN YEARS for such a crime, in which is role was minor, given the other ‘vandals’ involved). He was convicted despite his easily-verifiable claim that he was playing for Bahraini club Al-Shabab against Al-Busaiteen, live on telly, at the pertinent time (try convicting Harry Kane for a bank job during a live Spurs game).

‘Coerced’ evidence from, among others, Al-Araibi’s brother Emad timed the ‘vandalism’ at 6.30pm, But the court timed it at 8pm, to fit their narrative that Al-Araibi could have played the match, in Muharraq, AND done the police station in al-Shamis, 13 miles away. No other reason emerged from a court which snootily declared that they didn’t “need to respond to the evidence presented by the defence. It is sufficient to take the conclusive evidence that they committed the crime.”

Yet the court’s time-zoning was actually ‘conclusive’ evidence that Al-Araibi could not have reached the police station ‘on time,’ as Al-Shabab confirmed that he left the game, which ended at 7.15pm plus stoppage-time, on the club coach and the video evidence shows Al-Araibi, still in his (number 25) purple Al-Shabab shirt taking time out to shake hands with a number of opposition players after the final whistle. Thus, aware of the need for inverted commas around the Bahraini Arabic word for ‘justice,’ he made himself ‘in absentia’ before sentencing.

He alleges he was detained and tortured because of his brother’s “political activism” in Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement, itself inspired by 2011’s ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings of various shapes, sizes and success and in whose name the police station was ‘vandalised.’ In 2013, amid the ‘crackdown’ on Bahrain’s ‘spring,’ it’s FA (BFA) allegedly formed a committee to identify footballers who had supported it.

The then-BFA chief was the never knowingly-charismatic Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa, whose rise to football power resulted from years of administrative diligence amd NOT because he is the Bahraini king’s cousin…oh no. And the committee re-hit the headlines in 2015 after Sheikh Salman, by then Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president, announced his Fifa presidential candidacy and he came under previously unthinkable international scrutiny.

Al-Araibi took this media opportunity to suggest that, maybe, Salman wasn’t the man for Fifa’s hotseat. On 24th February 2016, the (failing) New York Times reported a hugely understating Al-Araibi claiming Asia was “underrepresented within world soccer” but Salman “was not the person to advance it and represent (football) globally.” And Al-Araibi recounted his custodial maltreatment and torturers’ threats to ensure that ‘You will not play soccer again. We will destroy your future.’”

NYT reporter Rebecca R Ruiz, who has covered Fifa’s travails extensively for the paper, noted that Salman’s BFA “did not engage with requests from Al-Araibi’s sister and lawyers to confirm his alibi and exonerate him.” She additionally reported Salman’s lawyers’ counterclaims that “the BFA ‘provided evidence to assist a number of footballers to defend their cases,” but that “Salman did not personally receive a request for help from Al-Araibi.”

They also denied allegations that Salman “led a committee that…identified athletes” attending pro-democracy demos who “were detained and tortured.” They said the committee “met once” but “conducted no business.” Also, “Salman…had concerns about…whether it would be lawful” and thus ”chose not to participate.” Thus Salman had “absolutely no role in the identification, investigation, arrest or mistreatment of any individual.”

The allegations hardly harmed Salman’s presidential bid, the human rights record of the electorate of national FA chiefs could dictionary-define ‘mixed.’ But he still lost to Gianni Infantino, on the twin issues of charisma by-pass (it remains as psychologically disturbing to imagine Salman smiling as it is Roy Keane) and not promising the punters enough money. And it now seems that Salman neither forgave not forgot Hakeem Al-Araibi.

Al-Araibi was initially told his detention was based on his ‘red notice.’ But, since 2015, Interpol policy has been to refuse red notices against refugees from countries from where they had fled. And Al-Araibi was still able to make this very point to the Guardian Australia newspaper from his Bangkok detention centre, noting that the Thai authorities paid no heed when he said “I am a refugee in Australia. [Bahrain] is not allowed to take me.”

Al-Araibi soon attracted support from relevant human rights groups. “Hakeem is a refugee accepted by Australia, so Thailand should do the right thing by sending him back to Australia on the next flight,” noted Human Rights Watch (HRW) senior researcher Sunai Pashuk, indisputably. And other groups joined the chorus of uncomprehending condemnation of Thailand’s willingness to do Bahrain’s bidding.

“My life will end if I go to Bahrain,” Al-Araibi told Guardian Australia, upping the emotional ante as the roles of governmental authorities received critical scrutiny. Thai immigration bureau chief, Surachate Hakparn, said they had “conformed with domestic and international law.” And Interpol ‘answered’ questions about issuing Al-Araibi’s red notice in conflict with their own policy, with the old “can’t comment on individual cases” body-swerve.

The notice’s issue date, 8th November, when Al-Araibi’s holiday plans should have been known only to him and his visa application recipient, suggested that Bahrain had him under surveillance. This theory gained credence when Hakparn told BBC Thailand on 6th December that “the Bahrain government knew he would be arriving in Thailand” and “coordinated with Thailand’s permanent secretary of foreign affairs to detain him.”

But Australia’s role emerged last week, after extensive press inquiries initially met with a ‘Chuckle Brothers’ (“to me, to you,” RIP Barry) between Australia’s Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs departments. The tale eventually told was that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) who staff Interpol’s Australian National Crime Bureau had merely followed standard procedure by alerting the Thai authorities that Al-Araibi was en route to Bangkok, thereby aiding Bahrain.

Unlike Australia, Thailand has deported refugees on red notices, to Bahrain too. Thus, Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson couldn’t “understand why the AFP would inform Thailand that a refugee was travelling on a red notice (issued to) the country he fled from.” They “should have figured out he was a refugee and this red notice was a mistake.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 12th December) Australian authorities helped lift the red notice. But Thailand had already given Bahrain’s formal extradition request legal precedence.

Fifa were, eventually, poked into cation by extensive lobbying and urged Australia’s Football Federation to “take the matter up with their government.” They expected Al-Araibi’s case “to be solved in accordance with well-established international standards.” And they backed “calls” for Al-Araibi’s return to Australia “at the earliest possible moment.”.

Meanwhile, the AFC (president: S. Salman) was “monitoring the situation,” that old euphemism for inactivity. They have had a LOT to monitor.

On 7th December, Al-Araibi received heart-warming support from his Pascoe Vale clubmates, who wrote an open letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha “strongly” urging his government “to safeguard” Al-Araibi’s “fundamental rights to liberty and security” and gave Al-Araibi a glowing, near-poetic character reference.

They said he had “truly demonstrated his worth as a defensive force” who, “although quiet,” had “established himself as a valuable core player.” And, after briefly trumpeting their own “work to help protect refugees,” they declared themselves “proud to call (Al-Araibi) our friend and teammate” and urged Chan-Ocha to “halt” his “refoulement” (‘forcible return of refugees to countries where they may face persecution’) and “return (him) to Australia immediately.”

Three days later, Al-Araibi’s lawyer urged Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton to grant their client the Australian citizenship that would more readily keep Al-Araibi from Bahrain’s clutches. Latifa al-Haouli claimed Australia’s 2007 Citizenship Act afforded Dutton sufficient discretion as Al-Araibi’s detention was “far exceeding the criteria of public interest used to assess ministerial interventions.” Australia’s Home Affairs department, pantomime villains throughout this saga, said via an official statement that, oh no, it didn’t. Dutton failed to respond (and still hasn’t at the time of writing),

And the next day, Thailand extended Al-Araibi’s detention by “60-to-90 days” to facilitate preparations for “his extradition to Bahrain.” This galvanised campaigners. The wonderfully-acronymed Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy’s director of advocacy, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, said Al-Araibi “was already subjected to torture in Bahrain. Sending him back will place him at risk of further torture and will breach international human rights law (and) Thailand’s human rights obligations.”

Last Thursday, a coalition of human rights groups sent an ‘appeals submission’ to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which included video footage confirming the court evidence that Al-Araibi was playing for Al-Shabab when the police station was attacked. The submission claimed the court ignored “exculpatory evidence” in order to convict him. That day, an Al-Araibi relative told Melbourne daily newspaper The Age (anonymously for fear of Bahraini government reprisals) that “only Australia can help us.”

On Friday, Kasit Piromya, a “veteran diplomat” and Thai foreign minister from 2008-to-2011, told Sydney’s Morning Herald: “There’s no reason to detain him. He’s Australian, not Bahraini, he didn’t break any laws. He may express his opposition to the Bahrain regime but that is freedom of expression. He isn’t a terrorist as claimed.” Thailand’s foreign affairs ministry must remember “that Bahrain is an absolute monarchy and (gauge) whether there will be a fair trial.” And he added, veteran-diplomatically: “The ministry has to weigh the consequences” for Australia-Thailand relations.

And this Monday, former Australian captain Craig Foster impressively launched #SaveHakeem campaign. Foster, a broadcaster on Australia’s ‘Special Broadcasting Service’ (SBS) and an Amnesty Ambassador for Human Rights and Refugees, wrote to Salman, signing off as a “concerned member” of Al-Araibi’s “Australian football family.” Pompous and Blatter-esque, maybe. But the letter set Salman five ultra-pertinent questions.

Did Fifa vice-president Salman “endorse Fifa’s call for Hakeem to be allowed to return to Australia?” Did AFC president Salman support this “under AFC Human Rights provisions?” Would he “uphold Hakeem’s human rights, including advocating for (Bahrain) to withdraw their extradition order?” Would he publish his actions “as a matter of transparency?” And would he “immediately” demand Hakeem’s release, “pursuant to your (AFC presidential) obligations?”

Like the first verse of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem,’ these were a series of questions to which the answer is “no.” So, Foster reminded/informed Salman that the AFC presidency “carries a non-negotiable obligation to do everything possible to uphold the human rights of all in football,” phraseology which may have brought Salman out in an allergic rash.

He concluded: “If, as president, you feel unable to fulfil these duties, you should immediately resign and allow the position to be conducted in accordance with its obligations under Article 3 of the Fifa and AFC statutes” (Fifa statutes say it is “committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights”). And in a parallel piece for SBS’s ‘World Game’ website, Foster exhaustively detailed president Salman’s statutory obligations.

“It isn’t that simple,” ‘they’ often say. But this is. Al-Araibi remains detained, against all pertinent rules and obligations, because of Thailand’s preparedness to serve Bahrain’s supposed national and, more damningly, Salman’s personal interests.

Salman is seeking re-election as AFC miserable-git-in-chief/president, which confers a Fifa vice-presidency. Fifa’s 2017-adopted human rights policy, commits them to “protect the rights of football players, continually evaluate existing regulations and processes and, if necessary, consider additional measures.” Salman’s situation-monitoring and settling of old domestic political scores is therefore an abuse of his power/office.

Hakeem Al-Araibi should be returned to Australia immediately. Salman is obliged to do everything in his power to facilitate that. Neither seems likely to happen before you read this; a savage indictment of how football and politics are occasionally inextricably linked and of how football’s world leaders do so for their own, usually wretched purposes. Predictable, yes. But no less dismal for that.

NB: Guardian Australia reporter Helen Davidson and the Sydney Morning Herald’s James Massola have extensively covered Al-Araibi’s plight and their excellent work has been nicked for underpins this article.

NB2: There’s a plethora of petitions supporting Al-Araibi’s release. Two on Change.org’s website. And the major one on Amnesty International’s site. Link to the latter: here.