#SaveHakeem: An Update

The eagle-eyed among my AFC Asian Cup article readers (maybe all ten of you) will have spotted a certain antipathy towards two of the competing teams, Bahrain and Thailand.

This was nothing personal at all against any players. I know of nothing to hold against the Thai team which recovered impressively from a shellacking by India and were occasionally quite watchable, although the fraught recent political history of Bahrain football suggests they might be a different matter. It was due to the nations’ role in the seemingly illegal, clearly immoral detention of Bahraini ex-international defender and current Australian permanent resident Hakeem Al-Araibi in Bangkok Remand prison, awaiting potential, and potentially life-threatening, extradition ‘home.’

We detailed his case on 18th December, when it was just garnering attention beyond friends, family and clubmates. And Al-Araibi’s continuing detention worsens his plight, as the Thai courts have given Bahrain until Friday week, 8th February, to get their extradition paperwork sh*t together for Al-Araibi’s ‘return home.’ So while campaign efforts are garnering greater attention, they need to garner greater attention still.

There has been huge focus on the ‘football family,’ the soppy concept often (ab)used by disgraced Fifa ex-boss Sepp Blatter, to protectively ring-fence football (i.e. himself), to the point of siege mentality, from legal and political scrutiny. Blatter’s private definition of football’s ‘family’ was more Sopranos than Simpsons. His football family wasn’t designed to protect mere innocent players. When Blatter said ‘one of our own,’ he meant one of HIS own.

Hence Fifa, Asia’s football confederation (AFC) and Australia’s football federation (FFA) being, until very recently, varying shades of slow and low-key in offering support for the player’s case. The three bodies said they were “in dialogue” and/or “continuing to work” with each other, the purpose of which was unclear as none of them are the decision-makers in Al-Araibi’s case.

All have upped the ante, a little, in response to initial campaign pressure. But only with the recalcitrance of a child sharing sweets with their sibling because their mother has told them to. And despite their stalwart, statute-based insistence that football and politics mustn’t mix, Fifa have directed their pressure towards Thailand’s government rather than the protagonist with the closest (and some argue virulently, conflicted) interests in the case. For reasons which are grimly obvious.

The AFC and its charisma-deficient president Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa have publicly offered ****-all to Al-Araibi. In 2016, Al-Araibi publicly criticised Salman for his willing facilitation of, as Bahrain’s FA chief, the persecution of footballers for their involvement in Bahrain’s contribution to 2011’s ‘Arab Spring’ of pro-democracy protests. And Salman, the Bahraini constitutional but politically omnipotent monarch’s most (in)famous cousin, hasn’t forgotten.

Salman left Bahrain’s FA when he was elected AFC president in May 2013. It appears he would far rather say nothing than plead Al-Araibi’s case. Indeed, he has recused himself from the AFC’s dealings with Al-Araibi, whatever they may amount to, with AFC senior vice-president Praful Patel handling the matter, having been “asked 18 months ago to handle matters involving the AFC’s West Zone to ensure there were no accusations of a conflict of interest involving (Salman).”

Salman is therefore free to pursue what the above statement all-but-confirms; that he has other ‘interest’ in Al-Araibi. And the AFC have yet to do more than unspecified “work with Fifa” to “find a solution” despite the AFC’s commitment IN THEIR OWN RULES to “respect all internationally-recognised human rights” and to “strive to promote the protection of these rights.” And it damns international football politics that Salman’s stony silence, or his alleged active pursuit of Al-Araibi, will not damage his chances in the 6th April AFC presidential election.

The FFA’s initial powder-puff efforts to help Al-Araibi have been attributed to similar political self-interest, as FFA chair, Chris Nikou, is standing in April’s AFC Executive Committee election. An FFA delegation was captured by an FFA bod on whatever social media device counts as ‘camera’ meeting Salman the day after Al-Araibi’s arrest, making their claim to have been unaware of the situation plausible, if questioned by cynics.

Six weeks later, at the AFC Asian Cup finals in the United Arab Emirates, a more formal FFA senior executive delegation reportedly met Salman. But the FFA wouldn’t comment on their contacts beyond having “held direct dialogue with senior officials from Fifa, AFC and the Football Association of Thailand,”

The FFA also claimed continuing “contact with the Australian government” and continuing advocacy for Al-Araibi’s release, asking the Aussie, Thai and Bahraini governments “to continue their efforts to enable” his release and “ensure his safe return to Australia in accordance with internationally recognised human rights conventions.” This has had as little effect on Australia’s government as Australia’s government can politically admit.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne promised three weeks ago that on a trip to Thailand, she would “advocate for” Al-Araibi’s “safe return to Australia” and stress All-Araibi’s “permanent residency” In Australia, granted “in recognition of his status as a refugee.” And she told ABC radio that she had indeed “most definitely ensured the Thai government is well aware at all levels of the great importance of this matter to Australia.” However, Australia’s home affairs department has so far resisted all attempts to grant Al-Araibi full citizenship, which would significantly strengthen his legal position. Which makes Payne’s “very deep concern” seem platitudinal.

And, speaking of platitudinal… Fifa issued a (count ‘em) 137-word statement on 9th January, “calling for a humane and speedy resolution” of  a “situation (which) should not have arisen” and for “all the relevant authorities (in Bahrain, Thailand and Australia) to take the necessary steps to ensure that Mr Hakeem Al-Araibi is allowed to return safely to Australia.” This call naturally went unheeded. So Fifa secretary-general Fatima Samoura wrote to Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last Wednesday.

She stressed that Al-Araibi had refugee status as “he is at serious risk of mistreatment” in Bahrain, and his release would “do justice to Thailand’s obligations under international law and to basic human and humanitarian values, which we know your country and government hold dear.” How straight a face she had at this point is unknown. She also sought to meet senior Thai government figures to resolve the case “in a humane manner.” The senior figure she should meet is, of course, in their OWN high-ranks. Her words are wasted otherwise. And you suspect Fifa know that…and don’t care.

Many key campaigning groups have raised Al-Araibi’s plight with more suitable vehemence. The Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights president, Yahya Alhadid, said: “If Hakeem is extradited back to Bahrain, he will face continuous electric shocks, because he dared to criticise a member of the royal family.” Amnesty International Australia’s national director, Claire Mallinson, highlighted “the real danger of torture that Hakeem will face if returned.”

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy’s (yes, BIRD’s) director of advocacy asked why Fifa “have yet to question” Salman and called for “consequences for Bahrain and Thailand’s national teams if this persecution doesn’t end immediately…every second (Al-Araibi) spends in detention should be counted as a (Fifa) failure.”

Aussie World Players Association Executive Director, Brendan Schwab, got personal: “We haven’t had a statement from Salman in two months. That must surely disqualify him from holding the position he has.” Jaimie Fuller, co-founder of self-explanatory campaigners NewFifaNow fantasised: “Salman could show football that he respects the rule of international law and champion (Al-Araibi) freedom.”

And the most vehement, articulate individual has been Aussie ex-captain and veteran players’ union and players’ rights activist Craig Foster, who kickstarted the #SaveHakeem campaign. He wrote to Infantino last Friday, blaming “the circumspection of football politics… in large part” for Al-Araibi’s “life and liberty being in imminent danger.” And he added, emotively but correctly: “It will be no comfort…to say ‘we ‘tried.’ If this was your life, or mine, we would expect nothing less than maximum efforts to be expended, with haste. The soul of football demands that you and I agree on this point.”

Over a month after Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Scriven, raised it in parliament with a written question to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the case is now also attracting proper UK media attention, despite the distant prospects of a ‘quiet news week.’ The Guardian’s Sean Ingle has followed-up sister publication Guardian Australia’s excellent extensive coverage (mostly by reporter Helen Davidson). And on Thursday, resident football cartoonist and brilliant genius David Squires devoted his weekly Australian cartoon strip to the history and details of Hakeem’s case.

Meanwhile, English football enemy of Piers Morgan, Gary Lineker, tweeted to urge Fifa to “sort this wrong out.” This, in itself, won’t make Fifa’s boots quake. But social media interventions played a key role in the concurrent campaign to free 18-year-old Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun from Bangkok detention. Her case made greater progress, thanks to garnering greater media focus. And when Hollywood actor Anthony LaPaglia tweets urging support to save Al-Araibi “from the cold indifference of political expediency,” 7,000 Twitterati automatically take notice.

Bahrain have responded via the thoroughly-modern method of claiming that two plus two is seven and not giving an arithmetical f**k, a Bahraini government spoke insisted there was “no threat to Al-Araibi’s life,” (they would have said so otherwise). And Bahrain’s interior ministry issued a migraine-inducing cocktail of disingenuousness and bullsh*t, indirectly quoting Interior minister General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa at length (it’s always encouraging when an interior minister is a “General.” Isn’t it?).

If you wrote down his arguments and picked holes in them, you’d soon have no paper left. He found the “questioning” of Bahraini judicial integrity “intolerable.” He said Bahrain is “built on institutions in which the rule of law prevails…ensuring that justice is done” No, really. “External interference” in Bahrain’s “internal affairs” (Thailand’s arrest of a permanent Australian resident) was “unacceptable.” And Al-Araibi’s “arrest warrant being issued and followed by Interpol” showed “Bahrain’s commitment to international conventions” (Interpol withdrew the warrant for breaching them).

The #SaveHakeem campaign can only go so far with moral and factual pressure alone. Until Thailand’s prioritising of Bahrain’s wishes over international law is explained, campaigners will struggle to find the right pressure points. Thailand and Bahrain are not major trading partners. So, best guesses are that business deals between individual Thai government members and Bahraini royals are driving Thailand’s complicity,

As Foster noted on 7th January, the third day of the Asian Cup finals, “a global football showpiece is underway in the shadow of horrible abuse of human life yet politics and money trump basic rights” (although that doesn’t explain the still-questioned role of various Australian authorities in informing Thailand of Al-Araibi’s imminent arrival, thus initiating and facilitating all subsequent injustices).

As is often the case, then, investigative journalism might be campaigners’ most powerful tool. The revelations, however ‘strongly denied,’ of the grubbier side of Salman’s Bahrain FA tenure intermittently knocked his 2016 Fifa presidential election campaign off its stride, an election he was favoured to win, lest we forget.

Of course, he ultimately lost because baldy Blatter Gianni Infantino promised Fifa’s venal electorate of global national association chiefs more money in more languages with more smiles (i.e any). But the AFC and Fifa presidencies up for grabs again in April and June respectively. And Salman is sufficiently power-hungry to take minimal risk with his re-electoral prospects. Whether he is hungrier for revenge on Al-Araibi is surely worth testing.

In her excellent 17th January weblog (‘Sitting on the sidelines and being silent won’t help Hakeem Al-Araibi get home to Australia’), leading football governance reform campaigner Bonita Mersiades published an extensive contact list for potential campaigners, which I reproduce below.

The campaign has become multi-faceted, arguably to the point of requiring consolidation (two petitions for-the-price-of-one is no bargain). But every little helps. Everything you always wanted to know about Hakeem Al-Araibi but were afraid to ask is out there, somewhere. And matters are betting more time-critical by the nanosecond, As his wife wrote to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau earlier today (Tuesday): “Time is running out, and I am pleading desperately to you as a humanitarian, and someone who would not hesitate to stand with justice, please, please help my husband,”

And as he himself told Guardian Australia’s Hannah Ellis-Petersen, speaking from Bangkok Remand Prison last week, he was “losing hope” and his fear of extradition was “getting worse every day.” He was detained for “(telling) the media in 2016 (that) Salman is a very bad man who discriminates against Shia Muslims. I didn’t do anything in Bahrain, I didn’t do anything in Thailand, I didn’t do anything in Australia. How can they keep me locked up like this? Please help me, please.”

As Foster said last night (Monday): “This has now become an emergency situation requiring an escalation across the board form all stakeholders.” And that includes all of us.


Contact list:

Thailand Government – Mr Don Pramudwinai:  minister@mfa.go.th – Twitter: @mfaupdate

AFC – Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa: pritibah.rabinder@the-afc.com – Twitter: @theafcdotcom

Australian Government – Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs foreign.minister@dfat.gov.au  or senator.payne@aph.gov.au – Twitter: @marisepayne

Bahrain Government – Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa: Minister for Foreign Affairs contactus@mofa.gov.bh – Twitter:  @khalidalkhalifa

Sign the Change.org petition: https://www.change.org/p/marise-payne-save-hakeem

Sign the Amnesty petition: https://action.amnesty.org.au/act-now/savehakeem-tell-thailand-to-release-refugee-footballer