KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS: The Asian Football Confederation, better late than never, has finally tottered off the fence over the plight of Hakeem Al-Araibi.
Increasing pressure registered by all corners of the football world – from world governing body FIFA, players’ groups and former presidential candidates plus the Australian government – have urged Thailand to release the former Bahrain international who is in prison pending the outcome of an extradition application from the Gulf state.
The situation has been complicated for the AFC because the three countries involved are all its members and its president, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, is a member of the Bahraini governing royal family and has had to deny allegations of involvement in Al-Araibi’s original decision to seek refugee status in Australia.
Sheikh Salman, properly, has recused himself from the issue because of the conflict of interest, but cmpaigners have been increasingly angered by the AFC’s refusal to take a public stand rather than hide behind FIFA’s own concerns.
That has changed after former Australian captain Craig Foster delivered a petition on Al-Araibi’s behalf yesterday to FIFA which was accepted by secretary-general Fatma Samoura in Zurich. FIFA acknowledged later: “This situation should not have arisen, in particular, since Mr Al-Araibi now lives, works and plays as a professional footballer in Australia, where he has been accorded refugee status.”
A subsequent statement from the AFC announced that it had directed approached the Thai government.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has written to His Excellency Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand, to request the urgent release of the footballer Hakeem Al Araibi from detention in Bangkok.
The AFC senior vice-president, Praful Patel, contacted the Thai Prime Minister to ask for an immediate intervention to allow Mr Al Araibi to return to Australia, where he has been granted Refugee Status.
Mr Patel was asked by the AFC Executive Committee in 2017 to handle all matters relating to issues arising in the AFC’s West Zone.
Today he wrote: “As stated publicly on numerous occasions, the AFC has been in constant contact with FIFA and other stakeholders. Through the AFC Administration, there has been a constructive dialogue with many of the relevant bodies in this case, including the Football Association of Thailand.
“Therefore, on behalf of the AFC, I hereby respectfully request Your Excellency to take the necessary steps to ensure that Mr AI Araibi is returned safely to Australia, where he has been granted Refugee Status, at the earliest possible opportunity.
“The AFC joins FIFA and other stakeholders in the belief that his release will respect Thailand’s obligations under international law and demonstrate the basic human and humanitarian values, which are held dearly by your country.
“To help bring about a speedy resolution to this case, the AFC puts its Administration at your disposal to aid the Thai Government in any way possible and the AFC thanks Your Excellency and your Government for considering the AFC’s appeal for the release of Mr Al Araibi as quickly as possible.”
Bahrain’s Interior Minister has described outside pressure as “unacceptable” and stated that Al-Araibi should allow the legal process to take its course. However there have been indications that Thailand’s approach to refugees is variable even though it is not a signatory to standard United Nations conventions.
However Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has said: “I understand the concerns of all sides. We are in the process of exploring solutions.”