Refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi speaks from Thai prison, says 'I don't know why I'm in jail'

| 07.02,19. 08:59 PM |

Refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi speaks from Thai prison, says 'I don't know why I'm in jail'

Photo: Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was "disturbed" after Hakeem al-Araibi entered court in leg irons. (Reuters: Jorge Silva)

The despair was etched on Hakeem al-Araibi's face when I saw him at the Bangkok Remand Prison where he's been held for the past two months.

The footballer, who fled criminal charges related to the 2011 Arab Spring protests against Bahrain's Government, is allowed one visitor per day as he waits for his next court hearing in April.

After hours of negotiating with Thai prison officials, I was allowed to see the young refugee.

We spoke for about 15 minutes by phone, through a glass and bamboo partition.

He told me he was terrified at the prospect of being sent back to Bahrain.

"I am very scared," he said.

Mr al-Araibi also told me he never vandalised a police station in Bahrain, and insisted he was targeted because he criticised the country's rulers.

"I don't know why I'm in jail or how long I'll be here," he said.

He lives in an information vacuum, without access to phones or newspapers.

Mr al-Araibi seemed to be unaware he could spend another six months in prison while the Thai Criminal Court assesses Bahrain's extradition request.

He was in utter despair when I broke the news to him.

However, the 25-year-old is doing his best to keep busy while he waits to learn his fate.

He plays football with the other inmates in a small courtyard inside the prison, and is keeping up a fitness regimen so he will be able to continue his football career at Melbourne's Pascoe Vale FC.

His greatest concern is for his wife, who returned to Melbourne after his arrest.

She is supposed to be going to university next month to do a degree in business, and Mr al-Araibi worries his predicament will force her to delay her studies.

He had nothing but thanks for the Australian Government and people — as well as the footballing community — for maintaining pressure on Thailand to release him.

Hakeem al-Araibi fled Bahrain after vandalism charges

Mr al-Araibi is bewildered at his imprisonment, and the series of events that led him to a Thai prison cell.

He was a promising young player on Bahrain's national football team when he was arrested by security forces in 2012.

Bahraini authorities claimed a group of protesters, including Mr al-Araibi and his brother, Emad, attacked a police station with petrol bombs during the Arab Spring uprising.

Hakeem al-Araibi denied the allegations and said he was tortured by his captors during his detention.

When he was later allowed to travel to Qatar to compete in a football match, he fled to Iran.

He eventually made it to Australia, where he was granted refugee status.

In November last year, the 25-year-old and his wife flew to Thailand for their honeymoon, believing his Australian visa allowed him to travel safely.

But they were detained immediately when they landed at Bangkok's Airport in response to an Interpol "red notice".

Countries belonging to Interpol can issue the notices, asking other countries to help locate and arrest a person wanted in a criminal matter.

But they're not meant to be issued against a refugee when the notice is requested by the country from which they fled.

Thailand blames Australia for the arrest

Mr al-Araibi told the ABC that if he is freed, he will be afraid to travel internationally again.

The Thai Foreign Ministry said Mr al-Araibi was arrested because a police bureau that handles Interpol matters in Australia notified Thai authorities of his imminent arrival.

"It took several days after the arrival of Mr Hakeem before the Australian authorities informed us that the red notice had been cancelled," the ministry said in a statement.

"By that time, legal proceedings in Thailand regarding Mr Hakeem had already started and could not be reversed."

Thai officials also claimed Australian officials didn't tell them until more than a week after his arrest that Mr al-Araibi was a refugee.

However, the ABC understands the Australian Government has disputed that timeline.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for Mr al-Araibi's release this week, saying he was "disturbed" to see photos of him in shackles as he arrived for a court hearing on Monday.

A Bahraini court sentenced Mr al-Araibi in absentia to 10 years in prison for the attack on the police station.

He says he will be jailed and tortured if he is forced to return to Bahrain.


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