Will be strong for Australia, says freed footballer Hakeem al-Araibi

Hakeem al-Araibi

Melbourne:  Refugee Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi landed in Melbourne on Tuesday after spending more than two months in detention in Thailand as his home country sought his extradition.

He landed at around 1 p.m. and was greeted by a large crowd of cheering supporters outside the airport “Welcome Home Hakeem”, reports Efe news.

“I would just thank Australia, it’s amazing to see all the people here, all of Australian people, the media who have supported me,” said Araibi.

“I will be more strong for this country, I will be strong here just for Australia. Australia is my country. I don’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia,” added the player, accompanied by the former captain of the Australian national soccer team, Craig Foster, who led a campaign to free him.

A Thai court ordered the release of Araibi on Monday after the prosecution withdrew the petition issued by Bahrain against the 25-year-old who plays for the semi-professional Melbourne team Pascoe Vale.

The soccer player, who arrived in Australia in 2014 after fleeing his country, was arrested on November 27, 2018, on his arrival in Bangkok for his honeymoon.

The arrest was due to a red notice issued by Interpol, which was later withdrawn, and an extradition request submitted by Bahrain, which had sentenced him in absentia to 10 years in prison on charges of vandalizing a police station during Arab Spring protests.

The case has tested relations between Thailand and Australia, whose government repeatedly asked for the release of Araibi, recognized there as a refugee in 2017, a demand that was echoed by FIFA, sporting organisations and prominent athletes around the world and spurred the social media hashtag #savehakeem.

Araibi, who said that he was tortured in 2012 before fleeing Bahrain, defended his innocence by claiming that when the events for which he was convicted occurred, he was playing a televised match with the Bahraini national team.