Human Rights Activists Hail Dissident Bahraini Soccer Star’s Release From Thai Prison

A prominent Bahraini soccer player, who had been facing a decade behind bars in his home country on disputed arson charges, was released from a Bangkok prison Monday after extradition charges against him were dropped.

Hakeem al-Araibi, 25, who had been living as a refugee in Australia with permanent resident status, will return there, the country's prime minister, Scott Morrison, said.

At a news conference Monday, Morrison said Araibi was on his way to the airport "as a result of the decision of the Thai government not to pursue the extradition." Morrison cautioned, however, "as is always in these cases, people aren't home until they're home."

In a brief statement released Monday, Bahrain's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it "takes note of the halt in legal proceedings against Hakeem Al Araibi in Thailand." But it added that the guilty verdict against him "remains in place" and "[t]he Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr. Al Araibi."

On Nov. 27, Araibi was anticipating celebrating his honeymoon when he touched down in Bangkok with his wife. Instead, he was taken into custody on an Interpol "red notice" issued by Bahrain, allowing Thai police to provisionally arrest him pending extradition.

Araibi had initially been arrested in Bahrain in 2012 after authorities said he committed arson by burning down a police station.

But the soccer player disputed the charges, telling The New York Times that his innocence was easily documented because he appeared in a live televised match at the time of the incident. The Shiite Muslim said he was targeted for his faith and because he had run afoul of Bahrain's ruling Sunni family owing to his brother's political activism.

After his arrest in Bahrain, Araibi said police tortured him.

A report commissioned by Bahrain's own monarch in 2011 found authorities engaged in "a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody."

"They blindfolded me," he told the Times in 2016. "They held me really tight, and one started to beat my legs really hard, saying: 'You will not play soccer again. We will destroy your future.' "

Around the time of his arrest in Bahrain, Arab Spring uprisings were upending establishments across the Middle East and Bahrain, a small island nation in the Persian Gulf, was cracking down on its own pro-democracy demonstrators.

Araibi fled Bahrain, seeking asylum in Australia. In 2014, Bahrain convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to a decade in prison. His brother is serving his own 10-year sentence, the Times reports.

"Bahrain is a state that has no human rights," Araibi told Human Rights Watch from a Thai detention center in December. "My life is in danger."

Australia has remained Araibi's staunch defender, decrying the legal basis for his arrest and pursuing his release. Yet, Australia's Embassy in Thailand released a statement indicating it may have contributed to his arrest in Bangkok by notifying Thailand of his travel. The embassy said after learning of Araibi's protected refugee status, it rescinded the red notice.

"Australia is reviewing our procedures so that this does not happen again," the embassy said.

Araibi's plight has inspired a broad international outcry that included pressure from the sports world.

His own Australian soccer team Pascoe Vale FC; FIFA, the global soccer federation; and the International Olympic Committee were among the organizations calling for his release.

Online, supporters rallied under the hashtag #savehakeem. On Monday, they celebrated news of his release.

"This is significant win for humanity," tweeted Australian retired soccer player and sports analyst Craig Foster who had lobbied for al-Araibi in Bangkok. (P)eople everywhere standing up for good, pushing back against regimes who flout international law, for human rights."

Foster included a new hashtag: #Hakeemhome.

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