Victory at last! Jubilation as freed Pascoe Vale FC footballer returns to Australia.
The Bahraini citizen, Hakeem al-Araibi was detained in Bangkok in November while on honeymoon, at the request of Bahrain authorities.
Following international outcry and diplomatic pressure, the Arab kingdom ended its extradition attempt on Monday.
Hundreds of supporters cheered the arrival of the 25-year-old footballer at Melbourne Airport on Tuesday.
Friends, family and campaigners are celebrating Hakeem al-Araibi’s return home to the Australian city of Melbourne after Thailand freed the refugee footballer who had been held since November on an extradition request from Bahrain.
After his flight touched down at Melbourne Airport on Tuesday afternoon, al-Araibi was met by hundreds of supporters, including members of his football club Pascoe Vale and the Bahraini community in Australia.
Wearing his team’s football jersey, al-Araibi told the crowd: “I would like to say thanks to Australia. It’s amazing to see all of the people here and all of the Australian people who supported me.”
“I don’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia. I will die in Australia and I love Australia,” he said.
A throng of well-wishers decked in #SAVEHAKEEM T-shirts cheered and sang the football anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as they greeted the 25-year-old defender at Melbourne Airport, after an overnight flight to freedom aboard Thai Airways flight 465.
“It is not possible to thank everyone involved because this campaign was not about one, or two or a handful, it was about hundreds of thousands of people and organisations of conscience worldwide who decided that goodness and compassion would trump evil,” Craig Foster, who once played football for Australia and is now the face of the #SaveHakeem campaign, in a statement.
“We fought for one soul because Hakeem represented everyone who suffers under tyranny and, through him, we hope to build a better world,” Foster added.
Hours before his return, his wife said she was deeply thankful for the lobbying efforts of the Australian government and public, and the international football community.
“I have had a smile all the time on my face and I can’t stop crying – I am just so happy,” said the 24-year-old, who does not wish to be named.
“I prayed and prayed that he would come back to me, and finally our nightmare is ending.”
On Monday, Thai officials said they had released al-Araibi because Bahrain was no longer seeking his extradition.
Bahrain’s foreign ministry said that despite the end of court extradition proceedings, the footballer’s conviction still stood.
“The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr al-Araibi,” it added.
Araibi was detained at a Bangkok airport on November 27 at the request of Bahraini authorities who accuse him of offences linked to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
His detention sparked worldwide outcry and a protracted diplomatic dispute between Bahrain, Thailand and Australia that raised questions about the neutrality of Interpol and the writ of Canberra’s refugee protections.
Araibi had expressed fear that he would be tortured and killed if he returned to Bahrain and supporters allege his prosecution was politically motivated.
Amid the jubilation at Hakeem’s freedom, Bahrain insisted that it stood by the decision of its own court in al-Araibi’s case.
“The guilty verdict against Mr. Al Araibi remains in place,” Bahrain’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions.”
After he had fled to Australia, al-Araibi was put on trial in his absence and found guilty of attacking a police station in a case Amnesty described as unfair. His brother is currently in prison having been found guilty of the same charge.
“This was a baseless and cynical extradition request from the Bahraini authorities, who wanted to punish Hakeem for his peaceful political views,” Minar Pimple, Amnesty International’s senior director of global operations, said in a statement. “Hakeem spent more than two months behind bars in Thailand when he should not have been detained for a single second.”