Thailand to free refugee footballer

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In this file photo taken on February 04, 2019 Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini refugee and Australian resident, is escorted to a courtroom in Bangkok. - Thailand has ended the extradition proceedings against refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi on February 11, a prosecutor said Image copyright AFP

A football player and refugee whose detention in Thailand sparked an outcry will be freed after Bahrain withdrew its extradition request, officials say.

Hakeem Al-Araibi, who is a Bahraini citizen, fled to Australia in 2014 and was granted political asylum.

He was detained in Bangkok in November on an Interpol notice requested by Bahrain. He had travelled to the Thai capital on honeymoon.

He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years for vandalising a police station.

Al-Araibi, 25, denies the charges and human rights activists say he could face torture if sent back to Bahrain. He has been a vocal critic of Bahraini authorities.

His case has been taken up by high-profile footballers, with stars including Didier Drogba and Jamie Vardy calling for his release. The Australian government, Fifa and the International Olympic Committee all lobbied Thailand

Thailand’s Office of the Attorney General (OAG) asked the court to end proceedings against Al-Araibi because Bahrain had said it no longer wanted him, officials told BBC Thai on Monday.

“This morning the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed us that Bahrain was no longer interested in this request,” OAG foreign office chief Chatchom Akapin said.

Craig Foster, a former Australian national football captain and TV host who spearheaded the campaign to free Hakeem, said there were “tears” in his household “right now”.

Al-Araibi plays for Pascoe Vale FC in Melbourne.

Last month, his wife told the BBC that extradition would put him in danger.

“I’m calling on every country to help Hakeem because I know if he gets taken back he will be tortured, and he will be killed,” she said.

But Bahrain said al-Araibi had been sentenced by an independent judiciary “on charges involving serious violence and criminality, unrelated to any possible freedom of opinion/expression issues”.

It said his safety would be “guaranteed” if he returned to Bahrain to appeal against the sentence.

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