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Bahraini Shiite footballer appears in Thai court to fight extradition

Athit Perawongmetha, Reuters | Jailed Bahraini footballer Hakeem Al Araibi arrives at a Thai court February 4, 2019.

A jailed football player who has refugee status in Australia told a Thai court 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.

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Hakeem 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 of 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 Araibi shouted to reporters outside court as he was escorted by prison guards into Monday's hearing.

The case has drawn appeals from Australia’s prime minister and football’s world governing body, FIFA, for Thailand to release Araibi and send him back to Australia

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

Australian ambassador-designate to Thailand Allan McKinnon and diplomats from at least 13 countries greeted Araibi as he arrived at the courthouse in the Thai capital, Bangkok, wearing a beige prison uniform, with shackles on his feet.

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 a crime punishable by over a year is not politically motivated or a military violation.

‘Football is with you’

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 he denies. It says he has opportunities to appeal his conviction in the country's courts.

The Bangkok court gave the defence team until April 5 to submit documents opposing the extradition, and set April 22 for a preliminary hearing of witnesses and evidence, said defence lawyer Nadthasiri Bergman.

Araibi, 25, a former Bahraini national team player, says he fled his home country due to political repression.

The footballer was detained upon his arrival in Bangkok in November while on a delayed honeymoon and, despite having been assured by Australian authorities that his status as a refugee would protect him, he was detained on arrival by Thai police acting on an Interpol red notice issued at Bahrain’s request.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison sent a letter last month urging Thailand to stop the extradition, and football governing bodies and human rights activists have urged the country to let him 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 Araibi outside court. Foster has been in Bangkok to push for his 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 in court.

Sunni royal family persecutes Shiite majority: rights groups

Araibi 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.

Human rights groups have accused Bahrain of arresting family members of opposition supporters. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has castigated Manama for the reprisal detention of relatives of London-based Bahraini human rights activist Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei, and called for their release.

Bahrain, a Gulf monarchy that is home to the US Fifth Fleet naval base, has a Shiite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy.

International human rights groups say Bahrain has systematically persecuted and denied the civil rights of its Shiite majority. A 2011 uprising against the against the US- and British-backed Khalifa dynasty, which had reigned since 1783, led to a military intervention by neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and a crackdown on the opposition.

Bahrain has rejected calls by human rights bodies, including one by the UN to free prominent activist Nabeel Rajab, who is being held in jail for posting “false tweets which do not fall within freedom of expression”.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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