Hakeem al-Araibi is home. And he wants you to know this is where he belongs.
“Australia, this is my country. I love Australia. I want to thank the Australian people and this man [former Socceroo Craig Foster] for his fight,” al-Araibi told the huge crowd that had gathered to greet him at Melbourne Airport on Tuesday afternoon.
“I will be strong for Australia.”
The former Bahrain international footballer and refugee arrived in Melbourne on a Thai Airways flight to a rapturous reception from family, friends and supporters. Among the joyous crowd were teammates from his Pascoe Vale club.
Al-Araibi had been in custody in Bangkok for 68 days after Thai authorities acted on an illegitimate Interpol red notice issued by Bahrain requesting his extradition. He was arrested as he arrived in Bangkok with his wife for their honeymoon in late November 2018.
Following an unprecedented public campaign, led by Foster, and the intervention of the Australian government, led by Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Thai authorities abruptly decided to bring his detention to an end on Monday night.
The high-profile campaign attracted global interest, including pleas from former English great Gary Lineker, Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler and Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba.
In recent days, it included a letter from the Thai cave rescue heroes and dual Australian of the Year recipients, Richard Harris and Craig Challen.
At al-Araibi’s side outside the terminal in Melbourne on Tuesday, an exhausted and emotional Foster hailed it as a special day.
“I’m very proud of Australia, I’m very proud to be Australian … to fight incredibly hard for not just a young player who virtually no one knew but a refugee who was under our protection, who we felt all of us needed to step forward and protect,” he said.
“To see him here back on home soil today speaks volumes about the character, the values and the pride that we have as Australians.”
Amnesty International spokesman Tim O’Connor told The New Daily al-Araibi’s release was a victory for people power.
“This is a huge victory for all Australians. What we have seen is the Australian community, with the support of human rights organisations and many others, especially led by Craig Foster, stood up for Hakeem because we know it was wrong that he was jailed there,” he said.
“We’re so excited to have him home.”
Al-Araibi, 25, fled Bahrain after being detained and tortured during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. He was granted refugee status and has been living in Melbourne and playing football with Pascoe Vale in the Victorian Premier League.
Pascoe Vale Football Club chairman Lou Tona said Tuesday was a massive day for his club.
“It’s a massive day for human rights in general,” Tona said.
He was also overwhelmed by the support of the wider community, many of whom had come to feel that al-Araibi’s fate was important to them.
“This is what my parents came to Australia for 60 years ago and we’ve just demonstrated those values are still alive and well today,” he said.
Many wonderful people stepped forward to help Hakeem. They all deserve to be in front of camera now, not only me. I can’t list them, but will thank each of them in time. My thoughts are with Hakeem’s wife. Her nightmare will shortly be at an end. Our prayers answered #Hakeemhome
— Craig Foster (@Craig_Foster) February 11, 2019
ACTU secretary Sally McManus was among those to greet al-Araibi at Tullamarine.
The union movement, through the Professional Footballers Association, had been a huge part of the campaign to return him to Melbourne.
“He’s one of us. He’s a union member. We wanted him to feel today that he never walks alone. We want him to know we had his back all the time,” Ms McManus said.
For now though, Foster said, al-Araibi would enjoy the simplicity of something many of us take for granted: Going home to his loved ones.
“Above all else, this is about a young man getting back to his wife. She hasn’t seen him in nearly three months,” he said.
This young family has extraordinary gratitude for what Australia has done for them.”
Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei from the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy said the decision to release al-Araibi was a huge victory for the human rights movement in Bahrain and the rest of the world.
His pre-trial for the extradition proceedings had been expected to begin on April 22.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison reflected on al-Araibi’s release during an ecumenical church service marking the opening of parliament for the year.
“I just give thanks in this place to the answer of so many prayers, by so many Australians, that Hakeem al-Araibi is coming home,” he said.