#SaveHakeem Goes Into Extra-Time

The campaign to halt Bahraini footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi’s extradition to his native Bahrain to face justice in inverted commas for a crime he did not commit continues to grow. And, after this morning’s developments in Thailand, where extradition proceedings received the legal ‘OK,’ it has to.

To recap. Al-Araibi was imprisoned and tortured in 2012, as were many Bahraini athletes involved in pro-democracy protests. He was released but later charged with vandalising a police station. And in 2014, while in Qatar playing for Bahrain, he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, despite having played in a televised match at a time which made it impossible for him to have committed the crimes for which he was convicted.

Al-Araibi fled to Australia, who granted him refugee status in 2017. Last November, he was detained on arrival in Thailand for his honeymoon, on the basis of an incorrectly-issued ‘Interpol Red Notice,’ an international arrest warrant which cannot be issued to a country (such as Bahrain) from which its subject (such as Al-Araibi) is a refugee. The notice was thus withdrawn but, hyper-conveniently, his arrest was suddenly based on other information provided by Bahrain. And if you can’t smell something fishy there, you can’t smell at all.

He thus remained and remains detained in Bangkok Remand Prison and Thailand’s Attorney-General today (Friday) accepted the validity of Bahrain’s extradition request. Al-Araibi will appear in court on Monday and, as Matt Connellan of Australia’s SBS news network reported, when Al-Araibi tells the court he is unwilling to return to Bahrain, “a further 60 days’ detention will follow as both sides’ build their cases.”

This site documented football authorities’ snail-paced, grudging response to the injustice done to a member of its (for want of a much better word) family. But the superb efforts, publicly led by former players’ rights activist and 1990s Australian team captain, Craig Foster, have pressured even the most reluctant authority, Asia’s football confederation (AFC).

AFC president Sheikh Salman was Bahrain FA chief in 2012 and has unconvincingly denied facilitating any retributive torture of athletes. Al-Araibi spoke out against Salman in 2016. Hence, it seems obvious, Bahrain’s especial determination to side-step international law to pursue Al-Araibi and Salman’s especial silence on the matter, in neglect of his statutory duties as AFC president, a point broached by former Fifa presidential candidate, Jordan’s Prince Ali, who tweeted: “AFC officials have no idea what they are doing. Clueless and ignorant of the duties and obligations of a governing body.”

This week, however, things changed. Salman’s (in)actions have betrayed a conflict between his AFC presidential and his Bahraini ruling royal family interests (the king’s a cousin). And, it handily emerged last Saturday that, 18 months ago the AFC’s executive committee asked senior vice-president Praful Patel to take responsibility for the AFC’s West Zone, handily including any player-extraditions to West Asian AFC member-nations such as, to pick an example purely at random, Bahrain.

And Patel has gone one key, equally unexpected, step further. On Tuesday, he wrote to Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, “hereby respectfully” requesting “Your Excellency to take the necessary steps to ensure that Mr AI Araibi is returned safely to Australia, where he has been granted refugee status, at the earliest possible opportunity.” Salman might be even more miserable than usual about this. Unless he knows he can trump Patel’s work with a ‘back-channel’ word in the right Thai shell-likes.

Nevertheless, Patel has been far from the only voice now raising itself, either for the first time or at higher volume. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) piped up at last to say that president, Thomas Bach, “personally discussed” Al-Araibi “with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees” and that “full support for Fifa actions…to find a solution based on ‘basic human and humanitarian values’ has been conveyed to the Thai government by IOC member Khunying Patama Leeswadtrakul.”

And much of this emboldened activity has followed, and was at least part-inspired by, Monday’s meeting between Foster, World Players Association executive director Brendan Schwab and Fifa secretary-general Fatma Samoura. Indeed, Patel was following in Samoura’s metaphorical footsteps (with some of her actual words). And Fifa followed-up her “respectfully urging” of Thai authorities last week by repeating their pro-Araibi declaration in the Fifa.com meeting report.

Samoura called the meeting “very productive” in offering “very useful information on the case, especially after Mr Foster had met Hakeem Al-Araibi last week.” During it, “Fifa reiterated its will to escalate this issue to the highest levels of all authorities in both Bahrain and Thailand.” And Samoura specified: “We strongly urge the authorities in Thailand and Bahrain to do the right thing and ensure Mr Al-Araibi can go back safely to Australia as a matter of urgency.”

Thailand became the main focus of campaign attention by announcing that Bahrain had got their extradition sh*t together (not a direct quote) on Tuesday, ten days ahead of the Thai court deadline. It was thus significant that the Bangkok Post newspaper this week carried a team photo of Thai Premier League mid-table side Chaingrai United, holding a #SaveHakeem banner.

Responding to football authority pressure, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry repeated their consistent public stance that the case was for the “justice system” to decide. And Chatchom Akapin, director-general of the International Affairs Department of Thailand’s Attorney-General’s office (try fitting that on a scarf) explained the process for the new audience.

“(If) the Bahrain request falls in line with Thailand’s Extradition Act of 2008, we will make the request to the criminal court, which decides whether to send Mr. Hakeem to Bahrain or not.” If not, he said, Araibi would be released when his 60-day detention order expires next Tuesday. “For a country with no extradition treaty with Thailand, like Bahrain, we have to see various factors including their government request to determine whether it falls in line with our laws.” This morning, Thailand ruled that it did.

Foreign Minister, Don Pramudwinai, suggested that “the most proper way is Australia and Bahrain (initiating) dialogue. Thailand has already informed them that if they still have good relations, please talk to one another.” And Prime Minister Prayut completed the hat-trick of buck-passing: “Thai officials have to follow the law in every aspect. However, Thailand has good relations with Bahrain and Fifa. How can we find a solution? I understand everyone’s concerns.”

Meanwhile, Aussie PM, the hardly refugee-friendly Scott Morrison, has kept Prayut’s postman busy. But details of his letter have not emerged, his office merely saying he “emphasised” the importance of the case “to him personally, to the Australian government and people.” He previously insisted that Australia issues permanent protection visas (PPVs) such as Al-Araibi’s “after a careful process.” But on a right-wing radio show, he indulged in unsolicited victim-blaming, telling PPV holders: “Do not go to countries where you can put yourself at risk.” Al-Araibi pro-actively obtained Aussie authority assurance that his travel plans would not do so. Morrison might not be much help.

Ex-player interventions have surely been more helpful. Ex-United States keeper Hope Solo tweeted: “A fellow footballer is being wrongfully held in a Thai prison and could face deportation to Bahrain and torture. Take action now and tell Thailand to return him home safely #SaveHakeem.” And Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler offered to “sign and personalise” a “retro” Liverpool shirt (one of his old ones, by the looks), as a campaign fundraiser. He didn’t, perhaps mercifully, define “personalise.”

However, as the Guardian’s Sean Ingle noted last week, the campaign would have received a seismic boost from interventions by current Premier League players, as more Thais per-head-of-population watch the stuff than in the UK. We’ll see this weekend, although I’m not waiting with breath, bated or otherwise, for Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City’s players to do their pre-match warm up on Sunday in #SaveHakeem t-shirts.

Global media have begun their approach to ‘full swing’ in publicising Al-Araibi’s plight, with outlets ranging from London’s Daily ToryTelegraph to the failing New York Times and ‘fake news’ network CNN sticking their oar in where it is definitely required. And Asian Cup matchday campaign efforts have also swung fully, the most photo-opportunistic being rallies in Melbourne and in front of Sydney’s Opera House.

Thus, at long last, many relevant people have made, or have been forced into making, Al-Araibi’s case to the right people, in line with their moral and statutory obligations. And the response from the rest of football’s family in all forms and sizes has grown to significance. Maybe the Asian Cup finalists, Qatar and Japan, will have made headlines with a mass display of #SaveHakeem t-shirts in front of Salman and the game’s global (minus the UK) audience. Though, maybe not.

However, doubts remain over whether moral pressure and legal fact will trump the interests served by Thai willingness to do Salman’s Bahrain’s bidding. And with Al-Araibi’s fate now in the hands of Thai ‘justice,’ time is running very short to persuade the right people to do the very right thing indeed.