BANGKOK (Reuters) - Jailed Bahraini footballer Hakeem Al Araibi, who fled political upheaval in the Middle East nation and has refugee status in Australia, will spend at least two more months in prison in Thailand after a court set an extradition hearing for April.
The case has drawn appeals from Australia’s prime minister and soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, for Thailand to release Araibi and send him back to Australia, on the grounds that he could face torture in Bahrain, which sought the extradition.
Australian ambassador-designate to Thailand Allan McKinnon and diplomats from at least 13 countries greeted Araibi as he arrived at the courthouse in the Thai capital on Monday, wearing beige prison uniform, with shackles on his feet.
“Don’t send me to Bahrain,” said the footballer, who was arrested in Thailand in November while on his honeymoon and says that he faces persecution and torture if sent back to Bahrain.
The court gave the defense team until April 5 to submit documents opposing the extradition, and set April 22 for a preliminary hearing of witnesses and evidence, said defense lawyer Nadthasiri Bergman.
“We are not worried about the law because we have evidence to show that he should not be sent to Bahrain,” Bergman told Reuters before Monday’s hearing.
A Thai prosecutor submitted the Bahraini extradition request to the court last week, saying it showed Araibi had committed criminal wrongdoing and so should be extradited.
Supporters say that Araibi, as a recognized refugee, should be released and sent back to Australia instead.
“Thailand has really been used by Bahrain in this situation,” said former Australian soccer captain Craig Foster, who has been campaigning around the world for Araibi’s release, and was at the court..
“The Thai prime minister should simply step up and say this is a politically motivated charge, that the international reputation of Thailand is being damaged, and that Hakeem Al Araibi should immediately be released,” Foster told Reuters.
Thailand’s judiciary will decide the matter, the country’s deputy foreign minister said.
“Even though he has refugee status from Australia, there is an official extradition request from Bahrain, which has to go through our judicial process,” Virasakdi Futrakul told Reuters.
“We do not use political decision in this matter,” he added. “The government will not interfere with the judiciary.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and sport officials such as Fatma Samoura, the secretary-general of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, and Praful Patel, vice president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), have also urged Araibi’s release.
Araibi, who fled Bahrain in 2014 before being granted permanent residence in Australia, where he played for Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale soccer club, was arrested on an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request.
Interpol later canceled the notice.
Araibi was tortured by Bahraini authorities because of his brother’s political activities during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, New York-based Human Rights Watch has said.
Bahraini authorities deny allegations of torture.
Araibi was convicted of vandalizing a police station in Bahrain and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia.
He denies wrongdoing, saying he was playing in a televised football match at the time of the alleged vandalism.
Additional reporting and writing by Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Clarence Fernandez