'Just not right': Craig Foster leads protests as Australians rally for release of Hakeem Al-Araibi


On the day of the Asian Cup Final, protesters have gathered in Sydney and Melbourne to demand the release of the Australian football player from a Thai jail.

Australians gathered in Sydney and Melbourne on Friday to demand the "immediate release" of Australian semi-professional footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi from a Thai prison.

The 25-year-old Bahraini refugee has been detained in the prison since November last year, when he was arrested entering Bangkok for a holiday on the basis of a wrongly-issued Interpol red notice from his home country.

Former Socceroos captain Craig Foster speaks at the Sydney protest.
Former Socceroos captain Craig Foster speaks at the Sydney protest.
SBS News

The notice has now been withdrawn based on an Interpol policy that dictates red notices are not allowed against refugees and asylum seekers if the alert was requested by the country where they fear persecution.

"This is about showing the rest of the world today how much Australia cares," former Socceroos captain Craig Foster said at the rally in Sydney.

"The feeling of this country is escalating very quickly and Thailand should know that there are repercussions for taking any decision that is contrary to international law.

"This is not just a young player, a young refugee who hasn't seen his wife for two months - he is a torture survivor. This is just not right."

Mr Foster pointed out that Thailand was hoping to host the world cup in 2034.

"If you commit Hakeem to the court system and make him stay there for two or three years ... then we say you cannot host the world cup and we will be advocating strongly for that," he said.

"If you want to host that world cup but cannot guarantee the safety of any footballer ... then clearly you are not capable of hosting a major event."

Mr Foster arrived back in Sydney on Friday morning after travelling to Thailand to lobby government officials and football associations to call for Mr Araibi's release. 

"We really need to go hard now," he said at Sydney airport.

"But heading into this possible legal case, we need a massive push now, we have to push Thailand to do the right thing right now. We just cannot see him go through a court case for several years. 

Protesters at the Sydney rally.
Protesters at the Sydney rally.
SBS News

Federal MP Peter Khalil, who also spoke at the Sydney rally, said Mr Al-Araibi's Pascoe Vale Football Club teammates were "deeply, deeply concerned" for his safety.

He also said the team told him that they had no idea about Mr Al-Araibi's history. 

"They had no idea that their teammate had stood up against a regime … that he was tortured. He didn’t mention it to any of his mates," Mr Khalil said.

"He was such a low-key, modest guy."

Following Mr Khalil's speech, Olympic swimmer and human rights lawyer slammed the inaction of the Australian Olympic Committee John Coates.

"I want to know what John Coates is doing. The most powerful man in sport here in Australia has said nothing," she said. 

She questioned whether Mr Coates was doing enough to pressure the International Olympic Committee to lobby for Mr Al-Araibi's release - who she called "my fellow athlete, my fellow immigrant to Australia and my fellow human rights defender".

The rallies were planned to coincide with the Asian Cup Final, which is being held in the United Arab Emirates.

Bahrain claims that Mr Al-Araibi vandalised a police station during the Arab Spring in 2012, despite evidence that the footballer was playing in a televised match at the time of the alleged crime. He has been sentenced to 10 years' jail in absentia. 

The protests come hours before Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is expected to hold a press conference, in which Mr Al-Araibi's plight will likely be addressed.

At the protest, Mr Foster said the Thai government knew that the "international condemnation is growing" and were hoping for good news.

"Retribution against a young man is simply not acceptable to the international community," he said.

"This is not just about football, it is about refugee safety. And that affects every country."

"A young man needs our help," said former Socceroos captain Craig Foster at the rally in Sydney.
"A young man needs our help," said former Socceroos captain Craig Foster at the rally in Sydney.
SBS News

Earlier this week, Bahrain's Interior Ministry confirmed that it had filed documents requesting the extradition of Mr Araibi

Interior Minister General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa criticised parties advocating for Al-Araibi's release and slammed the external interference as "unacceptable".

"Those raising unfounded doubts about the integrity and independence of the Kingdom's judicial system are not only interfering, but also attempting to influence the course of justice," he said in a statement. 

Mr Foster said he was satisfied that the Australian government was working hard to free the refugee, but said it was time to "step up further now".

On Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted that the Australian government was "pushing on every door" to secure Mr Al-Araibi's release.

Mr Morrison recently wrote to his Thai counterpart Prayuth Chan-ocha regarding the matter, but is yet to recieve a response. 

"It's not my job to get offended, it's my job to get Hakeem home," he told 2GB.

"We're still working closely with them. This is a very sensitive diplomatic issue."

Later that day, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews revealed that he had sent a letter to Mr Al-Araibi and urged him to "stay strong".

"I sent this note to Hakeem, to let him know that all Victorians are standing with him. Stay strong, mate. We will get you home. And we’ll look forward to seeing you out on the field again very soon," Mr Andrews tweeted with a photo of the letter.

There are fears that if extradited, the Australia permanent resident will face the death sentence in his home country.

The Gulf Insitute for Democracy and Human Rights said that harsh sentences handed down earlier this week - including death sentences against political detainees and a life sentence against the Country's opposition leader - were a "serious indicator of what is waiting for Hakeem if extradited back to Bahrain".

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