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How politics, power struggles and the 2022 FIFA World Cup are all at play in the detention of Melbourne-based soccer player and Bahraini refugee Hakeem al-Araibi. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The Hakeem al-Araibi case

Hakeem al-Araibi is escorted by authorities to a Bangkok court in December.
Credit: EPA / Diego Azubel

For two months now, Hakeem al-Araibi has shared a large remand cell in a Bangkok prison with 50 other men. The food is poor, and he worries about the spread of disease. He has no access to a phone and is reliant on others to relay messages to his wife. In addition to his lawyer and consular staff, he is permitted one visitor a day for meetings of no longer than 20 minutes. Often that person is Evan Jones, the program co-ordinator of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, which is based in Thailand. “If they send me back to Bahrain,” al-Araibi recently told Jones, “don’t believe what the TV says. They will force me to confess things I haven’t done.” In his cramped cell, al-Araibi – Melburnian footballer and Bahraini refugee – is subject to extraordinary, contesting forces.

 

In 2011, the conflagration of democratic uprising in the Middle East spread, briefly, to the tiny Persian Gulf country of Bahrain. Its population of 1.3 million people are overwhelmingly Shiite Muslims, but they comprise a secondary class in a country imperiously ruled by a royal Sunni family. During the Arab Spring, Shiite crowds gathered peacefully in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. Martial law was declared. Real and rubber bullets flew. From its great friend and neighbour Saudi Arabia, the Bahraini government requested the deployment of 2000 troops to better help quell the movement. Protesters were murdered, tortured and illegally detained. The government made a point of rounding up prominent activists – athletes, journalists, doctors. They were beaten, jailed. TV broadcasts were dedicated to excoriating them.

At the time, Hakeem al-Araibi was playing football for his country while his brother was involved in the Arab Spring protests. In 2012, al-Araibi was arrested, tortured and detained – allegedly for helping firebomb a police station, although footage would later emerge of him playing club football many miles away at the time of the incident. In 2012, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, was the head of the Bahrain Football Association – and also a member of the ruling royal family. Today, he is both a vice-president of FIFA and the powerful president of the Asian Football Confederation, of which Australia is a member. Al-Araibi says Salman was responsible for identifying athletes in the hordes of protesters – and making grim examples of them. The sheikh has repeatedly denied these accusations.

“In 2016, in the lead-up to the FIFA elections [in which Sheikh Salman was running for president], Hakeem spoke out against him. Hakeem spoke of the torture he received,” says Evan Jones.

“The Interpol notice and extradition request for Hakeem is of course a cover for the real reason they want him back. They are fighting to get him back as retaliation and retribution for his public comments in 2016 that ultimately ruined the sheikh’s chances of becoming FIFA president.”

In 2014, Hakeem al-Araibi fled to Australia seeking political asylum. He has played semi-professional football since, most recently with suburban Melbourne club Pascoe Vale FC. In 2017, he was officially recognised as a refugee and granted a protection visa. Which is why it came as a great shock to him – and many in our government – when Thai officials arrested al-Araibi at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on November 27.

He had arrived with his wife on honeymoon. Bahrain had requested a red notice from Interpol – effectively a flag to authorities that a wanted person would be entering their jurisdiction. Inexplicably, the red notice was granted and executed by Thai officials. Inexplicably, because the red notice was illegitimate. Interpol’s own guidelines prevent political abuse of its system, in this case the prohibition of a country requesting a red notice against an individual recognised to be a refugee. As such, the red notice was rescinded – but al-Araibi has remained in remand. This week, Bahrain formally issued extradition papers to Thailand.

Under Salman’s presidency, the Asian Football Confederation has, until very recently, been silent. Belatedly, in an unusual deviation from its president, the organisation lent its support to al-Araibi’s release. FIFA, meanwhile, has also been reluctant to involve itself but this week called for al-Araibi’s return to Australia.

Former Socceroos captain, writer and SBS broadcaster Craig Foster has been prominent in his advocacy for al-Araibi. He has visited the footballer in his Bangkok cell and this week flew to FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich to brief executives there. Foster was in Geneva when I spoke to him.

“FIFA used ‘emergency’ – it’s their word,” he says. “It’s imperative that the campaign, which has been powerful so far … accelerate to the highest degree over the next days and week. Thailand must decide whether to commit this atrocity of justice to their courts system. It’s a political system and it will be based in large part by the international community; that pressure must exceed the immense leverage of Bahrain – immense and improper leverage.

“The position of Sheikh Salman as AFC president, well, any suggestion that following his inaction throughout the past two months, that this will not preclude his re-election to the presidential seat, this is incredible. In the immediate term, our focus is getting Hakeem out. But following that, I think all of Australia will be turning our attention to Sheikh Salman in any form of sports governance. He’s precisely the type of individual we need to rid world football of.

“Thailand have been responding to extreme pressure from Bahrain. We’ve known for several months that the relation between the two countries simply makes Hakeem a political prisoner – this is retribution. He rightly criticised a murderous and torturous regime.” On Monday, the AFC claimed Salman was recused from overseeing the organisation’s “west zone” – which includes Thailand – 18 months ago, because of conflicts of interest.

Evan Jones buys al-Araibi food from the prison’s shop – eggs, chicken, corn, some sweets. Coffee and a shower scrub. “Hakeem is doing all he can to remain strong, despite the challenging conditions he is faced with during his incarceration in Bangkok,” Jones says. “However, despite him trying to remain hopeful, he is becoming increasingly anxious about his case and about what fate will await him if returned to Bahrain … He has noted numerous times over the past few months that he is a refugee and that he has previously been tortured by the Bahrain government. He asked me: ‘Why would they send me back there when I will face torture and will be sent to jail for something I didn’t do?’

“His fear is growing about returning to Bahrain. He said that he initially was sure that Australia would secure his release and he’d be able to return to Australia. However, he now knows the lengths that the Bahrain government are going to in order to get him back to Manama.”

 

In 2016, Sheikh Salman was FIFA’s “reform” candidate for its presidency – and the favourite to win the job. That the disgraced former president, Sepp Blatter, supported his candidacy was an unusual distinction for a self-proclaimed reformist. A member of Bahrain’s autocratic royal family, cousin to the country’s king, Salman has been accused of organising the torture and detention of dissenting athletes during the Arab Spring, and, by a British MP, of improperly using development funds for his own FIFA campaign. Salman has denied the allegations.

While he lost his bid to head FIFA, the sheikh remains in a powerful position, increasingly so as Saudi Arabia – neighbour and close ally of Bahrain – seeks to diversify its economy, launder its reputation and consolidate its regional influence with vast, sometimes opaque, investments in sport. And there is ample suspicion Saudi Arabia is the reason why FIFA delayed its support of al-Araibi’s release.

Last year, FIFA president Gianni Infantino visited the Saudi royal family three times, including a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. These discussions likely centred on Infantino’s consideration of expanding the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar to 48 teams, which would probably necessitate expanding the tournament across borders – to Saudi Arabia, say. The Saudis have also pledged – via the world’s largest private equity fund – $US25 billion to create two new soccer tournaments. Infantino’s European colleagues are aghast. “I cannot accept that some people who are blinded by the pursuit of profit are considering to sell the soul of football tournaments to nebulous private funds,” the Union of European Football Associations president, Aleksander Čeferin, told the European Union last year. “Money does not rule – and the European sports model must be respected. Football is not for sale. I will not let anyone sacrifice its structures on the altar of a highly cynical and ruthless mercantilism.”

It’s not only graft that FIFA has been condemned for, but also associated human rights abuses – brutal land acquisitions, gender inequity and the trafficking of young players. Then there’s the kafala system, used in much of the Gulf to effectively enslave foreign workers. Under this system thousands have died building Qatar’s World Cup stadiums.

In late 2015, FIFA appointed Professor John Ruggie, of Harvard’s Kennedy School, to help create a human rights policy for the organisation. Ruggie is a former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, and the author of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. He has since written FIFA’s first human rights policy. Craig Foster isn’t alone when he says this is a real test to see how serious FIFA is in applying it.

Hakeem al-Araibi sits in the middle of all of this. In the middle of FIFA’s ostensible “reform” – but in reality, in the thick of its secrecy and flirtation with Saudi Arabia. In the middle of multibillion-dollar deals, intense personal ambition, and the legacy of the Arab Spring. And unfortunately, there’s precedent for Thailand deferring to Bahraini requests and refouling people. In 2014, Bahraini youth activist Ali Ahmed Ibrahim Haroon was detained at Bangkok airport and forcibly returned to Bahrain where his family said he was beaten on the flight and required hospitalisation upon arrival. He remains in prison.

“Since the Arab Spring, Bahraini authorities have continued to step up their efforts to mute any political dissent or challenges to their rule,” Evan Jones tells me. “For example, on 31 December, 2018, an appeals court in Bahrain upheld a five-year prison sentence against prominent human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. He was found guilty of sending tweets alleging torture in Bahrain’s Jaw Prison. He is just one of dozens of activists that have been sentenced to similar fates for peaceful expression.”

One person deeply involved in the Hakeem al-Araibi case told me Bahrain cannot conceive of letting him go. If they do, he’ll become a symbol of hope to those who poured into the streets in 2011. And a symbol of Bahraini royal impotence. That, they tell me, is how high the stakes are.

Thailand’s courts are expected to make a decision within a week.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "Trapped offside". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.