AFC belatedly call for release of refugee footballer

Abu Dhabi (AFP) –


Asian football officials on Tuesday called for the release of refugee player Hakeem al-Araibi, who has spent more than two months detained in Thailand while Bahrain seeks his extradition.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) had come under fire over their silence on the case of Araibi, a Bahraini refugee and Australian resident who fears torture and even death if he is returned to his homeland.

The player claims he is being targeted by Bahrain over his criticism of AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of the ruling family.

He has been in custody since arriving in Thailand on honeymoon with his wife.

AFC senior vice president Praful Patel has appealed to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to release Araibi, who was arrested in Bahrain in 2012 for what he insists were political reasons and, according to the player, blind-folded and beaten.

"On behalf of the AFC, I hereby respectfully request Your Excellency to take the necessary steps to ensure that Mr Al Araibi is returned safely to Australia, where he has been granted Refugee Status, at the earliest possible opportunity," he wrote in a letter posted on the confederation's website.

"The AFC joins FIFA and other stakeholders in the belief that his release will respect Thailand's obligations under international law and demonstrate the basic human and humanitarian values, which are held dearly by your country."

FIFA secretary-general Fatma Samoura, after meeting former Australia football captain Craig Foster, on Tuesday urged "the authorities in Thailand and Bahrain to do the right thing and ensure Mr Al-Araibi can go back safely to Australia as a matter of urgency."

The International Olympic Committee has also weighed in on the player's behalf, president Thomas Bach calling it a "worrying situation".

- Fled bail -

Asian football officials, meanwhile, had been widely criticised for blocking questions from journalists about the case at the Asian Cup tournament, currently reaching its conclusion in the United Arab Emirates.

Activists for the footballer warned such a stance risked harming Araibi's case after moderators shut down questions at an Australia team press conference.

The former youth international attributes his detention in 2012 -- in the wake of the pro-democracy Arab Spring protests -- in part to his Shiite religious background and his brother's political activism.

Bahraini authorities sentenced Araibi to 10 years in prison in absentia for allegedly helping protesters burn down a police station during demonstrations that swept the Gulf state in 2012.

The 25-year-old denied the charges, saying he was playing in a match at the time. The footballer fled Bahrain while on bail in 2013.

Araibi, who now plays for a semi-professional club in Melbourne, later publicly criticised Sheikh Salman as the Bahraini royal campaigned unsuccessfully for election as FIFA president in 2016.

Sheikh Salman, who is standing for a fresh term as AFC chief in April, and is also the FIFA number two, has long denied any links to Bahrain's crackdown on anti-government protesters in his former role as head of the Bahrain FA.