Melbourne-based refugee footballer Hakeem AlAraibi could face a lengthy trial if he refuses a formal request from Bahrain to extradite him from Thailand.
The 25-year old will go before Thailand’s criminal court on Monday, in shackles and prison uniform, more than two months after his arrest as he arrived in Bangkok on his honeymoon.
The hearing is expected to be brief but will start a legal process that could drag on for six months or more, during which time Hakeem AlAraibi will remain in a Thai prison.
Thai prosecutors in court will formally ask him if he agrees to be extradited to Bahrain, where he fled repression in 2014.
If AlAraibi refuses, as expected, Thai authorities have said the case will go to a trial. Its length would depend on how many witnesses are called on each side.
AlAraibi’s lawyer Nadthasiri Berkman said she would lodge an appeal against prosecutors when the hearing opens on Monday, in a new bid to stop AlAraibi’s extradition.
“The [Thai] Ministry for Foreign Affairs has the authority to throw the case out. We have so much evidence to show it’s a political case and should not proceed,” Ms Berkman said.
“It should not be this way.”
Ms Berkman said AlAraibi was “petrified” about the hearing.
“Recently he has been very stressed and agitated,” she told the ABC.
“When … he goes to go to court he’ll probably be petrified, what is going to await him?
“He doesn’t speak English, so I’m worried they won’t tell him anything. And he’ll have to wait for days without knowing what’s going on.”
AlAraibi faces a 10-year jail term for vandalising a police station in Bahrain, charges he denies and says are politically motivated.
He claims he was playing in a football match that was broadcast live at the same time as the alleged vandalism happened.
Asked if she was confident the court would listen objectively to AlAraibi’s case, Ms Berkman said: “The court has no choice but to listen, and we have very solid evidence as to why he cannot be extradited to Bahrain.”
‘Case not political but a criminal one’, prosecutor says
Thailand has downplayed the danger facing AlAraibi if he is extradited, saying there is no evidence he faces torture.
“If he is innocent he can go back to fight his case in a Bahrain court,” said prosecutor Chatchom Akapin, from Thailand’s Attorney-General’s office.
“This case is not political but a criminal one.
“Bahrain has evidence of Hakeem’s criminal wrongdoing and if he doesn’t want to return to that country then he must contest that in the court and it will take months.”
Thailand’s decision to allow the extradition case to proceed defies weeks of lobbying and pressure from human rights groups, foreign governments and the footballing world.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said earlier this week that Australia was doing all it could to secure AlAraibi’s release, and had written to Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
‘Abusing rights will end up backfiring on Thailand’
But lawyers and human rights watchers remain optimistic the young refugee will eventually be freed.
Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch in Asia, said Thailand would face world condemnation if it allowed the extradition request to succeed.
“This is a major black mark on Thailand’s record. Thailand is going to regret its actions, if it contravenes international human rights principles,” Mr Robertson said.
“Abusing rights will end up backfiring on Thailand … if it tries to send a refugee back into harm’s way in Bahrain.”
Mr Robertson said world football authorities and clubs may have the strongest chance of forcing Thailand to reconsider.
He praised FIFA, the Asian Football Association and individual footballers, such as former Socceroos captain Craig Foster, who have already lobbied for AlAraibi’s release.
But he said it was imperative for the wider football and soccer community to join the campaign.
“I think we need to have the European football clubs that Thailand fans value – perhaps Manchester United or Arsenal or Liverpool – have to say to Thailand that if they send Hakeem AlAraibi back to Bahrain that’s the end of any exhibition matches from Premier League teams going to Thailand,” Mr Robertson said.
“I think that Thai fans would be very angry, and they would direct their anger not at the teams, but they would direct their anger at the Thai Government.”
Mr Robertson called on FIFA to suspend both Bahrain and Thailand from competition in the 2022 World Cup if Thailand fails to release AlAraibi.
“Ultimately the Thai Government represents the Thai people in this issue. If the Thai Government disregards what the Thai people want, and go ahead with this extradition, they’re going to have to explain to the Thai people why Thai football is now in a pariah status,” he said.