Former Australian national team captain Craig Foster walks after a briefing on the illegal detention of refugee football player Hakeem al-Araibi at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. Foster is carrying some 50'000 petition signatures and supporting documents that demand his immediate release. Al-Araibi has been detained in a Bangkok detention centre for two months, facing imminent extradition to Bahrain. (Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP)

Soccer activists campaign for release of Bahraini refugee

January 28, 2019 - 10:01 am

ZURICH (AP) — Soccer activists campaigning for the release of a Bahraini refugee player detained in Thailand say his plight has become an emergency.

Former Australia captain Craig Foster said Monday at FIFA headquarters that Bahrain had formally submitted an extradition request to Thailand for the return of Hakeem al-Araibi. The former Bahrain national team player has refugee status in Australia and fears being tortured in his home country.

"This matter has become an absolute emergency," Foster said after meeting with FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura. "We want it to be resolved this week, before Friday."

FIFA President Gianni Infantino will join Asian soccer leaders at the end of the week for the Asian Cup final in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

FIFA agreed with al-Araibi's supporters, Foster said, that they need to increase contacts with government and soccer officials in Bahrain and Thailand, "and of course the royal family of Bahrain."

Samoura has written in support of al-Araibi to Thailand's prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha. The Asian Football Confederation's president is Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain.

"We believe he (al-Araibi) is a political prisoner having criticized members of the Bahraini royal family in recent years," said Foster, a television analyst and former players' union official in Australia. "This is ultimately what this is all about."

Al-Araibi has been jailed since November in Thailand — where he arrived with his wife on vacation — on an Interpol notice wrongfully requested by Bahrain because he is a recognized refugee.

Human rights groups believe Al-Araibi risks being tortured in Bahrain, which he fled in 2014. That year, he was sentenced in absence to 10 years imprisonment on a charge he denies of vandalizing a police station.

Al-Araibi has claimed he was targeted for arrest because of his Shiite faith and because his brother was politically active. Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni monarchy which survived a failed uprising in the "Arab Spring" protests in 2011.

Australia gave him political asylum in 2017 and he now plays for the Pascoe Vale club in Melbourne.

Foster, who visited Al-Araibi in a Bangkok prison last week, was joined at FIFA by another Australian, Brendan Schwab. He is the executive director of the World Players' Association, which represents 85,000 athletes across all sports.

"The FIFA human rights framework that has been put in place in recent years is, we believe, the benchmark for the rest of sport," Schwab said. "It's something we want to see upheld as an example."

The Asian soccer body has said Sheikh Salman recused himself from the case to avoid a conflict of interest. It has not formally supported FIFA's call for al-Araibi to return to Australia.

Former FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein, who competed against Infantino and Sheikh Salman in the 2016 election, has supported the player.

"Release Hakeem!" the Jordanian prince wrote Sunday on his Twitter account. "Your silence as officials is a shame and a total embarrassment. Protect your players."

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