Scores of supporters have welcomed footballer Hakeem al-Araibi home at Melbourne Airport, following his release from a Thai prison after nearly three months in detention.
Speaking to the crowd gathered in the terminal, al-Araibi thanked those who lobbied for his release and reaffirmed his love for Australia.
“I will be more strong for my country. I will be strong here, just for Australia,” the 25-year-old said.
“And Australia, this is my country. I don’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia. I will die in Australia and I love Australia. Thank you very much.”
The refugee wore the jersey of his team, Pascoe Vale Football Club, as he stepped into the terminal.
He was flanked by former Socceroos captain and human rights campaigner Craig Foster, who drew mainstream media attention to al-Araibi’s plight.
His return to Melbourne caps off a high-profile campaign for his release from Thai detention, and ushers in a period of intense scrutiny on the human rights obligations of both Australia and Bahrain.
In 2012, al-Araibi was accused of firebombing a Bahraini police station during the Arab Spring. al-Araibi denied the charge, and provided video evidence that he was playing football at the time of the incident. Regardless, human rights activists state he was tortured over the charge.
He eventually fled Bahrain in 2014 before arriving in Australia, where he was granted a refugee visa. Bahrain sentenced him to ten years in prison in absentia over the alleged firebombing. Supporters feared he would be tortured, or worse, if he were to ever set foot back in Bahrain.
al-Araibi was arrested at Bangkok Airport by Thai authorities on November 27 at the behest of Bahrain, who requested his extradition. The Interpol red notice, which was issued to Thai authorities to notify them of Bahrain’s expedition request, was later found to have been falsely sent; under his protected refugee status, al-Araibi was meant to be safe from being sent back to the nation from which he fled.
After significant community pressure, Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to lobby for al-Araibi’s release. After liaising with Thai authorities, Bahrain eventually relented by agreeing to drop the extradition order.
The nation’s foreign ministry maintained it would “pursue all necessary legal actions against him”, and did not clarify on what grounds it chose to drop the extradition order.
There are many issues pertaining to al-Araibi’s detention to sort out, not least of which was how Bahrain was aware of al-Araibi’s travel plans – and what involvement Australia had in that process. But for now, he’s home.