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Refugee footballer heading for Australia after being freed in Thailand

World News | Published:

Hakeem al-Araibi lives and plays professional football in Australia.

A refugee footballer has been freed by Thailand and left on a flight to Australia after prosecutors said they were no longer seeking his extradition to Bahrain in a case that has drawn worldwide attention.

Thailand came under pressure from Canberra, sporting bodies and human rights groups to send Hakeem al-Araibi back to Australia, where he has refugee status and plays semi-professional football.

Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said she looked forward to seeing Mr al-Araibi back in the country.

His lawyer and Thai immigration officials said he left Thailand on a scheduled flight taking him directly to his home town of Melbourne.

Prosecutors made the decision after Thailand’s foreign ministry sent their department a letter on Monday morning that indicated that Bahrain had withdrawn its request for Mr al-Araibi, said Chatchom Akapin, the director general of the attorney general office’s international affairs department.

Officials in Bahrain, an island kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia that is home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, said the country “reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against” Mr al-Araibi.

Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement after his release that the “guilty verdict against Mr al-Araibi remains in place and Mr al-Araibi holds the right to appeal this court verdict at Bahrain’s Court of Appeal”.

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Thailand prison van
A van believed to be carrying Hakeem al-Araibi leaves prison (Sakchai Lalit/AP)

He has said he was blindfolded and had his legs beaten while he was held in Bahrain previously. He said he believed he was targeted for arrest because of his Shiite faith and because his brother was politically active in Bahrain. Bahrain has a Shiite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy.

His supporters had said he should be freed and was protected under his status as a refugee with Australian residency. He was detained at the request of Bahrain relayed through Interpol upon his arrival in Bangkok in November while on honeymoon with his wife.

Activists praised Monday’s developments.

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“This is a huge victory for the human rights movement in Bahrain, Thailand and Australia — and even the whole world,” said Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

“Hakeem’s ordeal ended after 70 days when there was a clear public stance and solidarity movement.”

Former Australia national team captain Craig Foster, who has been leading the campaign for Mr al-Araibi’s release, praised all those who worked on the campaign.

“Many wonderful people stepped forward to help Hakeem,” he wrote on Twitter. “They all deserve to be in front of camera now, not only me. I can’t list them, but will thank each of them in time. My thoughts are with Hakeem’s wife. Her nightmare will shortly be at an end. Our prayers answered.”

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