BANGKOK – A refugee football player who lives in Australia has been detained in Thailand and is facing deportation back to the country he fled from, where he fears violence and persecution.
Hakeem Al-Araibi told Guardian Australia he was arrested on an Interpol red notice for his conviction over an act of vandalism in Bahrain which he denies and says allegedly happened while he was playing in a televised football game.
Since 2015 Interpol has said it would not allow red notices against confirmed refugees and asylum seekers from the countries they fled from.
The 25-year-old has spent two days in detention at a Bangkok airport and told Australian Embassy Staff he was scared and unable to eat, fearing that he would be sent back to Bahrain.
“When I arrived at immigration in Thailand they took me to detention and said you have a red notice from Bahrain,” he said from detention.
“I told them I am a refugee in Australia. I said [Bahrain] is not allowed to take me … I have been in Australia for four and a half years now.
“But they took me to detention. Still now I don’t know what’s happening.”
Al-Araibi arrived in Australia in 2015 and was granted refugee status and permanent residency in Australia three years later.
A former member of Bahrain’s national football team, he has previously described being tortured and beaten by authorities who had accused him and other football players of setting fire to a police station, and he was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail.
Al-Araibi denies the charge and claims he was playing in a televised football match at the time of the alleged incident.
The players and their families are believed to have been targeted for their involvement in peaceful protests against the ruling family during the Arab Spring of 2011.
Interpol’s online database contained no valid red notice under various spellings of Al-Araibi’s name, but he said Thai authorities had shown it to him.
“Australian Embassy officials in Bangkok are in direct contact with Thai authorities regarding this issue,” a spokeswoman for the Australian department of foreign affairs and trade said. “Owing to our privacy obligations we will not provide further comment.”
Al-Araibi’s support team have expressed concern that he would get less assistance from the Australian government because he is not a citizen, and called for urgent action to prevent his deportation to Bahrain.
“I spoke to someone from the Australian embassy in Thailand. She said just wait for immigration in Thailand because she sent them more information,” said Al-Araibi.
He said he checked with Australian and Thai authorities before leaving, and both had assured him of his safety.
A number of the players targeted alongside Al-Araibi were also reportedly granted refuge in Australia, where Al-Araibi now plays for a Melbourne team.
He has since publicly spoken against Sheikh Salman Alkhalifa, cousin of the Bahraini king and current president of the Asian Football Confederation, doing multiple interviews with media while Alkhalifa campaigned for the presidency of Fifa.
“Hakeem is a refugee accepted by Australia, so Thailand should do the right thing by sending him back to Australia on the next flight,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher for Thailand, Human Rights Watch.
“Under no circumstances should Thai immigration authorities hand him over to Bahrain, where he faces 10 years in prison on a politically motivated conviction and a repeat of the torture he experienced before he fled. Sending him back to Bahrain would violate Thailand’s obligations to protect refugees.
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the director of Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said: “Interpol has violated its obligations, as Hakeem holds refugee status and returning him to Bahrain puts him at significant risk of torture and imprisonment.
“His deportation would undoubtedly damage the reputation of Interpol’s newly-elected president early into his tenure.”
Al-Araibi’s wife, Naqaa Sateeh, has travelled to Thailand to see him, but can only visit for five minutes at a time, Al-Araibi said.
“I was relieved when Australia has given him a protection visa but I am sick, worried to death now that he could be deported to Bahrain at any moment,” she said.
Interpol and Thai immigration authorities have been contacted for comment.