CANBERRA, Australia — A refugee soccer player thanked Australians on his return home Tuesday hours after the threat of extradition to Bahrain was lifted and three months after he was detained in Thailand.
Hundreds of supporters carrying welcome signs and singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” were waiting at Melbourne Airport when Hakeem al-Araibi arrived on a commercial flight direct from Bangkok.
“I would like to say thanks to Australia,” Al-Araibi told the cheering crowd. “It’s amazing to see all of the people here and all of the Australian people and all of the media who supported me.”
Thailand had come under great pressure from Australia’s government, sporting bodies and human rights groups to send Hakeem al-Araibi back to Australia, where he has refugee status and plays semi-professional soccer.
Former Australia national team captain Craig Foster, who has been leading the campaign for al-Araibi’s release, said he could not sleep until he received word from the Australian embassy in Bangkok that the 25-year-old’s flight had left.
Foster was by al-Araibi’s side with an arm around the footballer as they faced the crowd.
“So this is the man, probably the most famous young man in Australia right now,” Foster said. “Something of this magnitude doesn’t happen without an incredible team behind, and there’s been an amazing coalition of people, right from around the world.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who wrote twice to his Thai counterpart Prayuth Chan-ocha in a bid to secure al-Araibi’s freedom, thanked Australians as well as Thai authorities.
“I want to thank all Australians for their support in achieving this outcome,” Morrison tweeted on Tuesday.
“We are grateful to the Thai government and thank them for the way they have engaged with us to enable Hakeem to return to Australia,” he added.
Two Australian expert cave divers who had helped rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded Thai cave in July also wrote to the Thai prime minister last week pleading for al-Araibi’s release.
Anesthetist Richard Harris and his dive buddy Craig Challen, a retired veterinarian, were last month named joint winners of Australian of the Year Award trophies, one of Australia’s most prestigious awards.
“The issue had just gained more and more prominence and Richard and I both realized that we’re in a position to hopefully give the issue a little bit of a nudge and contribute in our own little way,” Challen told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“We basically appealed to the prime minister to recognize that both the Thai and Australian peoples hold very dear certain principles of justice and that the charges of which Hakeem had been convicted in Bahrain didn’t really appear to adhere to those principles,” Challen added.
Thai prosecutors on Monday submitted a request to a court to withdraw the case to extradite al-Araibi to Bahrain, where he faces a 10-year prison sentence for an arson attack that damaged a police station. He has denied those charges and says the case is politically motivated.
Prosecutors made the decision after Thailand’s foreign ministry sent their department a letter Monday indicating that Bahrain had withdrawn its request …read more