By KAWEEWIT KAEWJINDA, Associated Press
BANGKOK (AP) — A soccer player who has refugee status in Australia told a Thai court Monday that he refuses to be voluntarily extradited to Bahrain, which has asked for his return to serve a prison sentence for a crime he denies committing.
Hakeem al-Araibi’s rejection of extradition means a trial will be held to determine whether Thai authorities will send him to Bahrain, where he fears he is at risk of torture, or release him so he can return to Australia.
“Please speak to Thailand, don’t send me to Bahrain. Bahrain won’t defend me,” a chained al-Araibi yelled to reporters outside court as he was escorted by prison guards into Monday’s hearing.
Former Australia national soccer team captain Craig Foster, who has been lobbying for al-Araibi’s release, shouted words of encouragement to the jailed player.
“Your wife sends her love, Hakeem. All of Australia is with you. Be strong. Football is with you,” Foster said.
Al-Araibi, 25, a former Bahraini national team player, says he fled his home country due to political repression. He has been living in Melbourne, where he plays for a semi-professional soccer team.
Bahrain wants him returned to serve a 10-year prison sentence he received in absentia in 2014 for an arson attack that damaged a police station, which he denies.
Al-Araibi’s supporters say he should be freed and is protected under his status as a refugee with Australian residency. He was detained upon his arrival in Bangkok in November while on a holiday at the request of Bahrain relayed through Interpol.
Al-Araibi has said he was blindfolded and had his legs beaten while he was held in Bahrain previously. He said he believed he was targeted for arrest because of his Shiite faith and because his brother was politically active in Bahrain. Bahrain has a Shiite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy.
The Bahraini government insists that he be treated as a simple fugitive. It says he has an opportunity to appeal his conviction in the country’s courts.
“The Thai government should see that Bahrain’s sole motive is to further punish Hakeem for the peaceful political opinions he expressed,” Amnesty International Thailand campaigner Katherine Gerson said in a statement. “He is at grave risk of unjust imprisonment, torture and other ill-treatment if he is returned to Bahrain.”
The Bangkok court set an April 22 date for the next hearing. Thai officials previously said a trial could be lengthy, depending on how many witnesses are called by each side. A court filing made last week by Thai prosecutors noted that while Thailand and Bahrain do not have an extradition treaty, extradition is still possible by law if Bahrain makes an official request — which it did — and if the crime is punishable by more than a year’s imprisonment and is not politically motivated or a military violation.
Allan McKinnon, Australia’s ambassador to Thailand, attended al-Araibi’s court hearing and said afterward that Australia is appealing to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to return him to Australia.
“He is a refugee. Allow him to return to Australia, to his friends and his family and the Australian community,” McKinnon told reporters outside the courthouse.
McKinnon said Thai officials had confirmed to him that “there is executive authority with the Thai government to cease this case at any time” and the Australian embassy would “keep working to persuade the Thai government that they should do that.”
Federico Addiechi, a representative of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, also attended Monday’s hearing and said the organization will continue to support al-Araibi.
“FIFA is committed to protecting human rights. It is a commitment enshrined in our human rights policy,” he said.
He said FIFA has not discussed imposing sanctions on either Bahrain or Thailand over the case.
Nadthasiri Bergman, al-Araibi’s lawyer, said the court has given her 60 days to submit the defense’s case. She said she requested his release on bail but it was denied because the court deemed him a flight risk.