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Refugee footballer pleads Thai authorities not to extradite him to Bahrain

Football player Hakeem al-Araibi, who has refugee status in Australia, told a Thai court on Monday that he refuses to be voluntarily extradited to Bahrain, which has asked for his return to serve a prison sentence for a crime he denies committing.

Al-Araibi’s rejection of extradition means a trial will be held to determine whether Thai authorities will send him to Bahrain, where he fears he is at risk or torture, or release him so he can return to Australia.

“Please speak to Thailand, don’t send me to Bahrain. Bahrain won’t defend me,” a chained al-Araibi shouted to reporters outside court as he was escorted by prison guards for Monday’s hearing.

His supporters say he should be freed, declaring that he is protected under his status as a refugee with Australian residency.

A court filing, made last week by Thai prosecutors, noted that while Thailand and Bahrain do not have an extradition treaty, extradition is still possible by law if Bahrain makes an official request, which they did, and if the crime is punishable by over a year, is not politically motivated or a military violation.

The Bahraini government insists that he be treated as a simple fugitive who was convicted for an arson attack that damaged a police station, an act that he denies. It says he has opportunities to appeal his conviction in the country’s courts.

The Bangkok court set an April 22 date for a next hearing. Thai officials previously said a trial could be lengthy, depending on how many witnesses are called by each side.

Al-Araibi, 25, a former Bahraini national team player, says he fled his home country due to political repression. Bahrain wants him returned to serve a 10-year prison sentence he received in absentia in 2014 for an arson attack that damaged a police station, which he denies.

The footballer was detained upon his arrival in Bangkok in November while on a holiday, and was subsequently held pending the completion of the extradition request by Bahrain.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison sent a letter last month, urging Thailand to stop the extradition. Football governing bodies and human rights activists have also urged Thai authorities to let al-Araibi return to Australia where he lives and plays for a semi-professional team in Melbourne.

“Your wife sends her love, Hakeem. All of Australia is with you. Be strong. Football is with you,” former Australia national soccer team captain Craig Foster said to Hakeem outside court. Foster has been in Bangkok to push for al-Araibi’s release.

“I think the facts of this case are a very simple one. Hakeem is a refugee. He is a human rights defender and therefore under international law he should not be subject to these proceedings,” Francis Awaritefe, vice president of FIFPro, an international football players’ body, said at the court.

Hakeem 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 Shia faith and because his brother was politically active in Bahrain.

Bahrain has a Shia majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy.

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