He’s free, but who’s to blame for Hakeem al-Araibi’s ordeal?



From The Guardian World:

 

Campaigners examine whether the failings of Interpol, Australian police, the world’s footballing bodies and Thai authorities allowed the refugee athlete to fall into Bahrain’s web

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Hakeem al-Araibi arrives home in Melbourne – video

As Hakeem al-Araibi settles back into his life in Melbourne after 76 days in a Thai prison, supporters and campaigners for his release will turn their sights to those who could have, and should have, done more.

Myriad intersecting themes in Al-Araibi’s case crossed international diplomacy, global law enforcement, football geopolitics, domestic politics, greed, nepotism and refugee law.

There were allegations and suspicions of incompetence and underhandedness, laziness and manipulation. Many questions remain unanswered, and it will be here that campaigners train their sights now Al-Araibi is home.

Key parties have serious questions to answer over their actions in the case of Al-Araibi.

Who orchestrated the pursuit of Al-Araibi?

Everything comes back to Bahrain, the tiny Gulf state with a ruling monarchy and a reputation for crushing opposition and dissent.

In 2011/12 authorities launched a brutal crackdown on athletes who took part in pro-democracy protests. They were arrested, beaten and allegedly tortured. Their faces were broadcast on state television and branded as traitors. Al-Araibi, who fled to Australia while on bail for the now infamous vandalism charges, told media in 2016 he was detained for three months and tortured, with guards targeting his legs and telling him he’d never play football again. He accused Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa, a Bahraini royal and head of the country’s football body, of abandoning his players.

Hakeen al-Araibi gestures to supporters upon arrival at Melbourne airport on Tuesday.


Hakeen al-Araibi gestures to supporters upon arrival at Melbourne airport on Tuesday. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Al-Araibi believes it was this public denunciation of the regime and in particular Sheikh Salman that motivated his Bangkok arrest.

Throughout Al-Araibi detention, Bahrain refused to answer questions. Instead it released statements through its PR department, proclaiming the fairness and transparency of its justice system, and the legitimacy of its pursuit of Al-Araibi.

Al-Araibi was arrested in Bangkok on the basis of an erroneously issued Interpol red notice. Red notices are requests “to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition”, according to Interpol, but not every country treats them that way. There are clear rules on their use when it comes to refugees (more on that later).

Bahrain’s red notice was ostensibly over Al-Araibi’s 10-year sentence delivered in absentia for a vandalism act in 2012 which was near impossible for him to commit as he was playing in a televised football match that evening.

The red notice, seen by the Guardian, reveals it was not granted until 8 November last year – the same day Al-Araibi was told by Thailand’s Melbourne consulate his visa was ready.

There are widespread suspicions Bahrain had Al-Araibi under surveillance or was tipped off about his travel plans, perhaps by the consulate.

Bahrain will not say why it chose now to seek a red notice, or how it obtained one against Interpol policy.

It has given no indication it will give up chasing Al-Araibi. Even after his release, Bahrain maintained its “right” to continue pursuing him, and suggested it had requested his extradition from Australia.

Why did Thailand acquiesce to Bahrain for so long?

One largely perplexing aspect of the case is why Thailand continued to entertain Bahrain’s extradition request in the face of mounting evidence it was illegitimate.

Thai documents seen by the Guardian reveal immigration authorities were initially confused by Al-Araibi’s refugee travel papers, but fully intended to return him to Australia because he was a refugee.

Hakeem al-Araibi in shackles as he leaves Thailand’s criminal court in Bangkok on 4 February.


Hakeem al-Araibi in shackles as he leaves Thailand’s criminal court in Bangkok on 4 February. Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Al-Araibi was told to book a flight home, but just a few hours before the plane left he was suddenly transferred from immigration detention to a Bangkok prison, his wife left panicking after she was told she would not see him again.

The abrupt change followed a tweet by Bahrain’s embassy in Thailand that it was following his case.

Even when the red notice was lifted – after Australian authorities realised their mistake (more on that later) – Thailand revealed a separate arrest request from Bahrain which they said justified his continued detention.

Thailand and Bahrain have huge development deals and tax break arrangements, and share the culture of a ruling monarchy, but the former’s continuing acquiescence to the latter, to the growing detriment of its also strong relationship with Australia, puzzled observers.

Their sharp turnaround was perhaps more readily explained by the international outrage focused on them after images of a barefoot and shackled Al-Araibi went viral, prompting domestic anger (ahead of a Thai election) and calls for travel boycotts.

Thailand sought to paint itself as stuck in the middle of Australia and Bahrain, and implored the two countries to find a solution, but then it appeared to find its own.

One day before Al-Araibi’s release the Thai foreign minister visited Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, in Manama to discuss “bilateral relations between Bahrain and Thailand and reviewed areas of mutual interest”.

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Refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi arrives at court in Thailand – video

How did Interpol fail to protect a refugee?

Interpol has consistently refused to answer questions about its error, which was arguably the primary cause of Al-Araibi’s detention.

Strict policies – used since 2014 and codified in 2015 – are supposed to ensure no country can issue a red notice for someone who fled it and gained refugee status elsewhere. The policies were designed to prevent governments from abusing the red notice system to persecute dissidents.

Essentially Interpol should never have said yes to Bahrain’s request, but they did. And now they won’t say why.

Repeated requests for answers have drawn no comment, and occasionally referrals to the Bahraini government. Questions submitted since Al-Araibi was released have not received a response.

Did the failings of Australian police compound Al-Araibi’s plight?

Interpol’s error could have been picked up in Australia.

Australian federal police (AFP) officers are seconded to Australia’s national central bureau for Interpol, running the country’s operations within the international information sharing system.

When the red notice was granted to Bahrain no one in the Canberra-based NCB saw that it was against a refugee to whom Australia had given protection.

The AFP has said Interpol membership creates “certain obligations” on member agencies, and suggested it was within this that the AFP notified Thailand of Al-Araibi’s pending arrival. Even if it had not, the red notice would have been flagged by Thai immigration on his arrival, and separately Bahrain had also requested his arrest.

Guardian Australia understands the AFP notification is a largely automatic process to give countries a heads up that someone subject to a red notice is on the way. But the former head of Australian Border Force, Roman Quaedvlieg, has said it would have taken a simple phone call or two to realise the horrifying error that had been made. Al-Araibi had no idea of the red notice’s existence when he got on that Jetstar flight from Melbourne.

Al-Araibi said he’d asked the immigration department before travelling and was told he’d be safe. Crikey has since reported the UK government informally warns Bahrainis not to go to Thailand.

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, later said on radio: “Please don’t go to countries where you can put yourself at risk in these situations.”

From the moment Al-Araibi was arrested, Australia’s Bangkok embassy and the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, worked extraordinarily hard behind the scenes.

Australian foreign affairs minister Marise Payne visits her Thai counterpart Don Pramudwinai on 10 January.


Australian foreign affairs minister Marise Payne visits her Thai counterpart Don Pramudwinai on 10 January. Photograph: Narong Sangnak/EPA

Officials were partially hamstrung by the fact he is a permanent resident, not a citizen. Al-Araibi’s lawyer facilitated a fast-track citizenship application, hoping that would help, but it stalled with the home affairs department.

The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said little on the case. At an early press conference Dutton appeared to suggest the red notice – which had already been lifted – may be legitimate.

On Tuesday Dutton said the government would be “looking into” the AFP’s involvement.

Morrison lent his weight in late January after Olympians lobbied for his personal intervention – something campaigners said had a significant impact.

Why did the world’s footballing bodies fail to put a person’s life before their own interests?

We’ll never know if Al-Araibi would have been freed without the contribution of athletes and powerful sporting bodies to the global campaign for his freedom. But we do know that those with the most power appeared to do the least.

Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation hold enormous sway in the region and, following revelations of migrant abuse in Qatar during preparations for the World Cup, had created their own human rights codes which obliged executives to use all available means and leverage to protect the human rights of players.

Al-Araibi’s detention was the first real test of those codes, and according to people like Craig Foster, they failed the test.

“The inability of football to step forward on this is plain to see,” he told the Guardian. “They needed to be pushed to save a human life.

“The people at the heart of this – and that includes some of the Bahraini royals – that has to be looked at immediately.”

Sheikh Salman is vice president of Fifa and this year intends to run for the presidency. He tried once before but lost to Gianni Infantino amid all the bad press from Al-Araibi and others about the Bahraini human right abuses.

Asian Football Confederation president and Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa.


Asian Football Confederation president and Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa. Photograph: Hasan Jamali/AP

Fifa was slow to say much at all about Al-Araibi, and it was only several weeks into his detention that it began to more forcefully call for his release, albeit in statements directed away from Bahrain.

Sheikh Salman also holds the presidency of the Asian Football Confederation, which said even less, only calling for his release once formal extradition papers were lodged with Thai authorities.

Through its head of communications, the AFC repeatedly refused to answer questions about or directed to Sheikh Salman, and argued with suggestions that it was not respecting human rights. Pressure increased until late January when it suddenly announced Sheikh Salman had recused himself from regional responsibilities for fear of perceptions of conflicts of interest. According to the AFC its vice president, Praful Patel, was the relevant executive, although he also refused to answer any questions about his efforts.

Lobbying efforts went beyond football, and in February a coalition of Olympians called for the International Olympic Committee and Fifa to threaten sanctions on Bahrain and Thailand if Al-Araibi was not released.

Supporters of Hakeem al-Araibi wait for his arrival at Melbourne airport on Tuesday.


Supporters of Hakeem al-Araibi await his arrival at Melbourne airport on Tuesday. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Football Federation Australia holds much less international power, but was equally criticised for its muted efforts. Top executives actually met with Sheikh Salman the day after Al-Araibi was arrested, but say they didn’t know at the time. It would be another six weeks before the executives would get in the room with him again – on the sidelines of the Asian Cup – and pass on Australia’s wish to see Al-Araibi freed.

On Monday, FFA’s chairman Chris Nikou, who this year will seek a place on the Asian Football Confederation executive, expressed the federation’s gratitude to the governments of Thailand and Bahrain for releasing Al-Araibi, and congratulated the football community for uniting in the cause.

What next?

Hakeem al-Araibi (right) with Craig Foster, the former Socceroo who spearheaded the campaign to free him, at Melbourne airport.


Hakeem al-Araibi (right) at Melbourne airport with Craig Foster, the former Socceroo who spearheaded the campaign to free him. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

When Al-Araibi arrived at Melbourne airport on Tuesday he stood side by side with Foster. The young player was full of nothing but gratitude and joy. Foster too, but he had other things to say.

“There are massive themes here around … refugees, international law, our own policies, around sport governance, in which we think is a massive step taken forward today,” said Foster.

“The next stage of this campaign is to start to clean up some of the sport’s governance that played a role in bringing this about, and that ultimately put Hakeem in jail back in 2012 and saw him tortured. And we’re not going to stop until we hold people accountable for what’s occurred over the last three months.”

 

 

The original content can be found here: He’s free, but who’s to blame for Hakeem al-Araibi’s ordeal?

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