Araibi, Hakeem al- Australia Bahrain Bangkok (Thailand) Political Prisoners Soccer torture

Thai Court Holds Bahraini Soccer Star Who Escaped Persecution

A political refugee who spoke out against a powerful ruling family in the Gulf moved one step closer on Tuesday to being extradited to his native Bahrain by the Thai authorities.

A Thai court formally extended the detention of Hakeem al-Araibi, once a star defender for the Bahraini national soccer team, for 60 days, during which Thailand’s immigration department can prepare his extradition. Mr. Araibi was stopped last month at the Bangkok airport after a flight from Australia, where he had been living as a legal refugee after fleeing a crackdown on Arab Spring protesters in the small Gulf nation.

Mr. Araibi was initially detained because of an Interpol red notice, an alert from the global police agency meant to inform nations about individuals with active arrest warrants, the Thai authorities said. While red notices are not legally binding, they can be used to detain fugitives so they can be extradited to the country where they were convicted of a crime.

But red notices have also been abused by authoritarian governments that want to bring home critics who have fled abroad, human rights groups say. That is why Interpol over the past several years has instituted reforms that require the agency to vet each person who is added to the red notice database. Refugees like Mr. Araibi are also supposed to be exempt from red notices.

Yet, critics say, Interpol has not been rigorous enough in ensuring that the red notice database is not being used to settle political vendettas.

Nearly a week after he was detained in Bangkok, Interpol rescinded the red notice for Mr. Araibi, Thai officials said.

By that time, however, Mr. Araibi was already behind bars in a country with a record of sending asylum-seekers back to countries where there is credible evidence that they will face torture or political persecution, including China, Pakistan and Bahrain.

Thai officials said they were keeping him in detention because they had received an extradition request from the Bahraini authorities, based on a 10-year jail sentence for charges including vandalism that human rights groups say was politically motivated.

“This is a guy with a public profile who’d fled a country where he made credible allegations about being tortured to the point that he was granted asylum in Australia,” said Bruno Min, a senior policy advisor for Fair Trials, a global criminal justice watchdog. “Why was the red notice on him allowed to be published in the first place? What this shows is that the system put in place is still not good enough to stop abuses from happening.”

Bahrain has a history of using red notices to force dissidents to return home. In 2014, Thailand, acting on an Interpol alert, turned over another critic of the Bahraini ruling family to officials from there. The United Nations said evidence suggests that dissident was beaten severely during his journey back to Bahrain, and he remains in prison.

In 2014, Mr. Araibi was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for having vandalized a police station. Yet minutes before that crime supposedly occurred, he was playing in a televised soccer match. The judge who convicted him is a member of Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa family.

After fleeing abroad, Mr. Araibi spoke out against a senior Bahraini soccer official, whom he accused of allowing the torture and imprisonment of members of the national team believed to have supported the Arab Spring protests in Bahrain. Some are still in jail.

That official, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, also a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, is the head of the Asian Football Confederation and a vice president of FIFA, the international body governing soccer.

In 2016, Sheikh Salman ran, unsuccessfully, to lead FIFA, and concerns over how his family was ruling Bahrain helped to scuttle his candidacy. Mr. Araibi spoke out about how he believed Sheikh Salman had failed to stop his torture.

Last week, in a rare political intercession, FIFA, which was been plagued by corruption scandals, called for Mr. Araibi’s return to Australia.

Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, has also urged Thailand to allow Mr. Araibi to fly back to Australia.

The protests against the Sunni Muslim ruling family of Bahrain were broad-based, with some 200,000 people, many members of the nation’s Shiite majority participating, human rights groups said. Mr. Araibi’s brother participated in the protests and Mr. Araibi said in a phone call from detention in Bangkok that his brother’s activity triggered his eventual torture.

The sequence of events preceding Mr. Araibi’s detention at a Bangkok airport on Nov. 27 has led activists to question whether Thailand may have informed the Bahraini authorities about Mr. Araibi’s upcoming trip.

In October, Mr. Araibi and his wife applied for visas to holiday in Thailand. In early November, that visa was granted. The Interpol red notice, which stemmed from a request from Bahrain, was only vetted and published after Mr. Araibi received visa approval from the Thai immigration authorities.

“In the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, the repressive Gulf states seem confident that their global hunt of expat dissidents can continue without fear of consequences,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in London, referring to the killing of the prominent Saudi journalist in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Over the weekend, the Thai Foreign Ministry said that Thailand carried out the detention after requests from both Bahraini- and Australian-based authorities.

“The detention was carried out in response to the red notice alert received from the Interpol National Central Bureau of Australia and the formal request from the Bahraini government for his arrest and extradition,” the statement read.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, along with the Australian Federal Police, did not respond to requests for comment. But it would be unusual for officials in a country that had given Mr. Araibi refugee status to have also reported him to the Thais.

Australia has extradited individuals with red notices on them to countries where rights groups say they could be subjected to torture, such as Egypt. And it is possible for different bureaucracies within one country to work at cross purposes, rights watchdogs said.

“Quite often, with red notices, we have seen that there’s not a lot of dialogue between two different bodies, like law enforcement and immigration,” said Mr. Min of Fair Trials, who has extensively researched abuses of Interpol red alerts.

On Tuesday, Mr. Araibi’s request for bail was denied, said his lawyer, Nadthasiri Bergman. He will be transferred from immigration detention to Bangkok’s notoriously overcrowded remand prison while his case works its way through the courts. The process could take weeks.

Mr. Araibi and his wife had wanted to spend a belated honeymoon in Thailand, Mr. Araibi said. From detention, he described his bewilderment at how a planned holiday had transformed into the likelihood that he would be forced to return to a country where human rights groups say thousands of people have been tortured for their involvement in the crushed Arab Spring movement.

“My wife and I, we want a vacation,” Mr. Araibi said. “I do not want to go back to a torture place.”

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