MELBOURNE: Refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi made a triumphant return to Australia yesterday, ending a two month ordeal that saw him jailed in Thailand and threatened with forced return to his native Bahrain.
A throng of well wishers decked in #SAVEHAKEEM T-shirts cheered and sang the football anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ as they greeted the 25-year-old defender at Melbourne Airport, after an overnight flight to freedom aboard Thai Airways flight 465.
“I want to thank Australia” said a smiling Araibi, “this is my country.”
“I don’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia. I will die in Australia and I love Australia,” he said.
Araibi was detained on Nov 27 while on honeymoon at the request of Bahraini authorities who accuse him of offences linked to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
His detention sparked worldwide outcry and a protracted diplomatic dispute between Bahrain, Thailand and Australia that raised questions about the neutrality of Interpol and the writ of Canberra’s refugee protections.
Araibi had expressed fear that he would be tortured and killed if he returned to Bahrain and supporters alleged his prosecution was politically motivated.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison led celebration of Araibi’s release, saying many Australians’ prayers had been answered.
“We know all Australians will deeply appreciate the decision, allowing him to return to his wife, family and friends.”
Morrison thanked the Thai authorities, who had earlier left his written appeals for Araibi’s return unanswered, but abruptly dropped extradition proceedings on Monday at Bahrain’s request.
“We have been informed that Bahrain wants to withdraw the (extradition) request … if they don’t want him, we have no reason to keep him here,” Chatchom Akapin, a director-general in the Thai prosecutor’s office, told AFP.
The case had also become a cause celebre in the football world, with stars like Didier Drogba calling for Araibi’s release and FIFA urging the Thai football authorities to intervene.
The international football governing body on Monday thanked Thailand in a statement for “doing the right thing” and said it hoped the athlete “will be able to resume his footballing career soon”.
Former Australian football captain Craig Foster, who led a campaign in the sporting community for Araibi’s freedom, expressed his “deepest gratitude” for the news.
“My thanks go to the wonderful people of Thailand for your support and to the Thai (government) for upholding international law,” Foster posted on Twitter. — AFP