Shackled Bahraini footballer in Thailand 'upsetting': Australia PM

SYDNEY/BANGKOK (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday he was “disturbed” to see Bahraini refugee footballer Hakeem Al Araibi in shackles in Thailand and had told its prime minister this was a serious issue for Australians.

Jailed Bahraini footballer Hakeem Al Araibi leaves Thailand's Criminal Court, in Bangkok, Thailand February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Pressure is mounting on Bangkok to free Araibi, who was arrested in Thailand in November on behalf of the Bahraini government, with Canberra and soccer’s world governing body FIFA demanding his return to Australia where he plays.

Araibi, who fled Bahrain in 2014 before being granted permanent residence in Australia, has said he would face torture if sent back to Bahrain for his criticism of the royal family.

Morrison said he was “disturbed” to see Araibi with shackles on his feet arrive at a Bangkok court on Monday. The court extended his detention for two months.

“I thought that was very upsetting and I know it would have upset many Australians, and I respectfully reminded the Thai prime minister that Australians feel very strongly about this,” Morrison told Sky News.

“So we will continue to make these representations and not just to Thailand, but also to Bahrain,” he added.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the junta, said on Tuesday his government could not intervene in the court proceedings.

“Do not jump to conclusion about the verdict and do not politicize this,” Prayuth told reporters.

Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said Australia and Bahrain should negotiate a solution.

“We don’t have a stake in this and it’s a matter that the two countries need to talk,” Don told reporters.

“If they can’t find a solution, then Thailand is ready to mediate. I am sure things will not escalate, but for now Hakeem will be under the care of Thai authorities.”

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 soccer match at the time.

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.

Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director, said Araibi’s return to Australia “is an open and shut case.”

“Everybody seems to realize that except the Thai government,” he told Reuters.

Many Thais, including former deputy prime minister Chaturon Chaisang, have called for Araibi’s release, making the hashtag #SaveHakeem the top trending Thai item on Twitter on Monday.

Thai soccer team Chiang Rai United have also joined the campaign to free Araibi, who played for Melbourne’s second tier Pascoe Vale soccer club.

Football Federation Australia have ramped up their campaign to free Araibi and pledged A$10,000 ($7,263) on Tuesday to kickstart a fundraising drive to help return him to Australia.

Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat in Bangkok; editing by Darren Schuettler