Tragedy, oppression and violence: the story of footballer turned political prisoner Hakeem Al-Araibi

By Kieran Ahuja

You may or may not have heard of Hakeem Al-Araibi. His story has been told by myriad publications, football or otherwise, over the last few weeks in an effort to raise awareness of his story, which is one of tragedy, oppression and violence.

The Bahraini centre-back, who has made appearances for the international team, is a Shia Muslim. Although Shia Muslims once made up 60% of the Bahraini population, they have faced unrelenting economic and social oppression since the 2011 Arab springs. The Bahraini authorities are also gravely over-zealous in imprisoning anyone who speaks out against their regime; back in January 2017, The Economist reported that around 2,600 of Bahrain’s 650,000 Shia populace are political prisoners, many of whom have been imprisoned on trumped-up or falsified charges. The same article reported that the Bahraini authorities have slowly diminished the Shia’s demographic majority.

Hakeem Al-Araibi is one of these unfortunate people. Back in 2012, he and his brother were arrested on suspicion of vandalising a police station; allegations that Hakeem insists are completely politically motivated and falsified, and that instead were the consequences of his and other Bahraini footballers’ participation in the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations, in which protestors allege that around 30 people were killed. In fact, he was playing in a televised Bahraini league match at the time the alleged vandalism took place.

Hakeem is not the only Bahraini footballer to be arrested and tortured for exercising their right to protest. Many members of Bahrain’s golden generation of footballers, who narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification in 2010, were detained, beaten and subsequently forced to flee to other countries.

For three months afterwards, Hakeem was detained and viciously tortured, he told The Guardian:

“It was hell for me,” he said, describing prison. “For the first two days they blindfolded me and beat me in the face and legs, telling me I would never play football again. Five hours’ straight many police beat me. They poured cold water over my face and back. They were not even trying to get a confession out of me and whenever I asked them: ‘What did I do?’ they would just scream ‘shut up’ and beat me more.”

Eventually, Hakeem was released on bail and continued to play for the Bahraini team. Whilst in Qatar with the international side in 2014, however, he learned that he and his brother had been found guilty of the attack on the police station, tried in absentia, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His brother is currently incarcerated in Bahrain, serving his sentence. It’s worth noting that the judge who sentenced Hakeem is a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, according to The New York Times. 

Hakeem, however, managed to flee; firstly to Iran, then Malaysia, then Thailand, then finally to Australia, where he was granted refugee status in 2017. He married his childhood sweetheart, began playing in Australia’s state leagues – where he plays for Pascoe Vale – and began to rebuild his life.

Then, last November, he and his wife decided to take a belated honeymoon to Thailand. Before travelling, Hakeem said that he checked with immigration authorities to make sure that he would be safe to travel, and was told that he would be as long as he didn’t try to enter Bahrain – of which he had zero intention.

However, upon entering Thailand, Hakeem was immediately detained based upon an erroneously issued Interpol notice, related to the bullshit charges that he faces in Bahrain – although this is a direct contravention of Interpol’s regulations, as he has been granted refugee status in Australia. Interpol lifted the aforementioned notice back at the start of December, but to the behest of the international community, Thailand’s notoriously severe authorities continue to detain him, and are threatening to send him back to Bahrain, where he is convinced he would face arrest, torture and possible death. This is despite the fact that he is an approved refugee with verified travel documents. The Bahraini government responded to a Guardian article by saying that there is ‘no threat to [Hakeem’s] life’, and that he only needs to return to Bahrain to appeal his conviction.

Hakeem’s dubiousness about this assertion, however, seems well founded. In 2016, he spoke out against Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, part of Bahrain’s royal family, president of Asian football’s governing body, and at the time, candidate for the FIFA presidency. He accused al-Khalifa of being discriminatory against Shia Muslims, and of being oppressive towards athletes campaigning for a more democratic political system. Considering the power that al-Khalifa wields in Bahrain, as well as the fact that Bahrain have been known to execute dissidents in the past, Hakeem’s fears for his personal safety seem everything but hyperbolic.

Hakeem awaits a court decision on February 8th that will decide his fate. Calls for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to condemn events and call for Hakeem’s release have been met with a truly disappointing silence. The response from the Australian government, Australian football teams, FIFA and the IOC has been more pro-active, however. Amnesty International have called for his release, as have the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (GIDHR).

His wife, who has preferred not to be named in reports of the events, has written to the Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha pleading for Hakeem’s release. “His future lies in your hands. Please help my husband come home,” the letter states, according to the BBC. The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also written to Chan-ocha, but the Thai Prime Minister has maintained that it is a matter for the Thai courts to resolve.

If you want to get involved, this petition on change.org has at the time of writing got over 38,000 signatures, and is aiming for a total of 50,000. To find out any updates, go to #SaveHakeem on twitter.

The importance of ensuring that Hakeem is not extradited to Bahrain cannot be understated. In a part of the year where conversation around Asian football should be about the Asian Cup, all eyes have again been drawn to the shady side of Asian football, the federations that manage it, and the countries that to which it pertains.

Update (14th February): This week Thai authorities finally released Hakeem after Bahrain, under intense diplomatic pressure, dropped the charges against him. He had spent over 70 days in detention. He will now return to Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed his expectation that Hakeem will soon gain full Australian Citizenship. Hakeem is expected to represent his team, Pascoe Vale, in a game this Friday.

Hakeem thanked both the Prime Minister and former Socceroos captain Craig Foster, who led the campaign to get him released. According to The GuardianHakeem said:

“It’s amazing to see all of the people here and all of the Australian people and all of the media who supported me,” he said, thanking the Australian government, its people, and Foster in particular.

“This is my country. I didn’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia.”

Kieran Ahuja is a founder of 5WFootball and contributes regularly to the site. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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