Hakeem al-Araibi is a Bahraini footballer. In 2014 he fled from Bahrain to Australia, after being accused of participating in an attack on a police station. The vandalism of the police station was one of a number of incidents involving pro-democracy protests in which a number of players and athletes were active. The fact that the vandalism he was accused of occurred while Hakeem was playing in a televised football match did not matter to the authorities and Hakeem was sentenced in absentia to spend ten years in prison.
In Australia, he was granted a permanent protection visa in 2017, according him refugee status. Hakeem al-Araibi and his wife decided to leave Australia, for the first time since their 2014 arrival, in order to travel to Thailand for their honeymoon, in late 2018. At Bangkok airport on 27 November, they were detained by Thai authorities. The basis for this arrest was a red notice which had been issued by Interpol and, as it later transpired, had been issued in error.
Hakeem subsequently spent 76 days in a Thai prison, while a huge swell of support and a campaign to free him was spearheaded by former Australian international footballer, Craig Foster. Foster, post-retirement, embarked on a media career in addition to his work advocating for players’ rights. He used his platform to create a network of support for Hakeem, gaining backing from FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, as well as a huge number of human rights advocates and high-profile athletes. Foster managed to engage the global football family to raise awareness of Hakeem’s circumstances and to lobby for his release.
Thailand continued to hold Hakeem despite the withdrawal of the red notice by Interpol, following an arrest request by Bahrain. International outrage at his continued detention peaked when pictures of Hakeem, barefoot and manacled, were shared following a court appearance.
At the height of the international outrage, the Thai Minister of Foreign Affairs visited Bahrain, where he spoke with His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. One day after this visit, Hakeem al-Araibi was released.
While a number of unfortunate errors compounded each other, including the failure of the Australian Federal Police to pick up the initial error from Interpol, at the heart of a huge number of opinion pieces on using sport to whitewash questionable human rights records (sportwashing as it has become known) was a man on his honeymoon. Hakeem al-Araibi had already been forced to flee his home country due to the real risk he would be further tortured for his perceived role in fermenting political unrest. That this detention occurred when he should have been enjoying his honeymoon is another layer of tragedy.
The fantastic work of Craig Foster, mobilising an incredible network of global support for Hakeem and ultimately putting enough pressure on the authorities to secure his release, highlights the power of football, and sport as a whole, as a force for good. While there is undoubtedly always more that can be done, it is important to recognise a victory and the end result of the Hakeem al-Araibi matter should be celebrated.