BANGKOK – When Bahamanian soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi landed at Bangkok airport with his wife at the end of last November 2018, he did not expect to spend his honeymoon in jail or become the central figure in an international incident testing relationships between Thailand, Bahrain, and Australia—and the ability of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, to prioritize athlete welfare over its own internal politics.
Hakeem Alaraibi, 25, who played for the gulf state’s national youth team, fled his homeland and was granted asylum in Australia where he plays semi-professionally for the second-tier team Pascoe Vale FC in Melbourne.
He was detained entering Thailand for a vacation and held “with a substantial number of other detainees… in very trying conditions”, Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players’ Association (WPA), told AFP in London.
“Hakeem is now at a stage where he’s losing hope,” said Schwab, whose Swiss-based union represents 85,000 players across professional sport through more than 100 associations in over 60 countries.
Schwab also urged FIFA’s Bahraini senior vice-president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa to “use the power of his office” to win Alaraibi’s release, warning that failure to do so would be “a fundamental breach of his duties”.
A Bahrain judge sentenced Araibi to 10 years in prison in absentia.
His conviction was based on an alleged coerced confession from his brother, Emad, who said he and his brother were part of a group of 150 protesters who vandalized a police station. A flaw in the prosecution’s case is that Araibi played in a soccer match broadcast live on television at the time he was accused of taking part in the attack.
Araibi was playing with an Australian club team at the time of his arrest in Bangkok. The Australian government, which is notorious for refusing refugee status to many seemingly legitimate asylum-seekers, had found his claim to be in fear for his life credible enough to grant him refugee status in 2017.
The Australian government, human rights groups and FIFA have all called for Alaraibi’s release, while Interpol has faced criticism for initially issuing the warrant for his arrest, which it later withdrew.
The WPA believes Shaikh Salman — who is head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and facing a re-election contest for that post in April — must do more to secure his freedom.
Alaraibi had spoken out against the FIFA number two in 2016 when Sheikh Salman ran unsuccessfully to be its president.
“Being a member of the Bahraini ruling family he’s uniquely positioned to demonstrate that he is someone who deserves to hold high office in the game,” Schwab said.
“It’s been nearly two months — the (AFC) has not even issued a statement as to what it thinks should occur.
“Inactivity in the next week or two unequivocally in our view makes his position untenable.”
Schwab noted the case is nearing a pivotal point with Thai law requiring Bahrain to submit a formal extradition request by February 8th, 2019.
Alaraibi’s plight has attracted global coverage — with the hashtag #SaveHakeem gaining traction — and high-profile supporters, including Australian Hollywood actor Anthony LaPaglia.
Former Australia football captain Craig Foster visited Alaraibi in prison on Tuesday.
— SBS News (@SBSNews) January 22, 2019
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne has also raised the case with Thai authorities, including during a visit to the country earlier this month.
FIFA repeated an appeal to Thai authorities earlier this month for the player’s release.
But the WPA, which pressured FIFA to draw up a formal human rights policy in 2017, wants the world footballing body to now uphold its vow to “strive to protect” all such rights globally.
Schwab said the union will file a formal complaint with FIFA’s ethics committee if it fails to act more forcefully.
“What we need to occur is for people who hold positions of power within the sports movement to carry out their responsibilities,” he added.