Sport Union Melbourne Rebels apologise for Thai sponsorship gaffe
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Melbourne Rebels apologise for Thai sponsorship gaffe

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Hakeem al-Araibi arriving at the Criminal Court in Bangkok on December 11. Photo: AAP
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The Melbourne Rebels have apologised for an ill-timed sponsorship announcement ahead of the Super Rugby season kick-off but have no plans to ditch the deal.

The Rebels announced their new partnership with Thai Airways on social media on Tuesday night.

News of the deal with the airline, which is majority owned by the Thai government came as Melbourne football player Hakeem al-Araibi remained in a Bangkok jail, after appearing in court on Monday barefoot and in shackles.

The announcement sparked immediate uproar from Twitter users.

Araibi has been in jail since his arrest on November 27 while on his honeymoon in Thailand. He has refugee status in Australia but faces extradition to Bahrain for allegedly vandalising a police station there in 2012.

On Monday, a Thai court sent him back to jail for a further 60 days to allow his lawyers to prepare his case against the extradition.

Earlier, Araibi, who plays for the semi-professional team Pascoe Vale FC in Melbourne, was seen arriving at court in leg restraints, shouting “Don’t send me to Bahrain”.

The international campaign to return Araibi to Australia has drawn support from many of the world’s sporting organisations and high-profile stars and former stars.

It has been led by former Socceroo and broadcaster Craig Foster. On Tuesday night, he described the timing of the Rebels’ sponsorship deal as appalling.

Rebels management was quick to apologise for the blunder, saying the club had not meant to cause offence and supported the campaign to return Araibi to Australia.

“This commercial relationship with an airline is in no way intended to be an endorsement for the breach of any individual’s rights or the actions of any government,” they said in a statement.

Foster said he accepted the apology and thanked the club for its support for his campaign.

“It’s past, let’s move on, together, your rugby community has been unbelievable and I appreciate all of your support,” he tweeted in response to journalist and former Wallaby Peter FitzSimons. “Poor timing, done plenty of that myself.”

The campaign to free Araibi has also had strong support from the Australian government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has written twice to Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to request the footballer’s return, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne has also urged the Thai government to intervene.

On Tuesday night, Mr Morrison said he was “very disturbed” at images of Araibi arrived in court with his feet shackled.

I’ve written to him again, because I was very disturbed at the appearance of Hakeem at the hearing the other day.

“He was shackled and I thought that was very upsetting and I know it would have upset many Australians,” Mr Morrison said.

“I’m respectfully reminding the Thai prime minister that Australians feel very strongly about this, very very strongly.”

On Wednesday, Football Federation Australia cancelled a proposed trip to Thailand for its under-23 men’s national team prepares for its AFC U23 Championship qualifiers in March.

“Australia’s national teams are united in their support for Hakeem al-Araibi and we call on the community to continue to campaign for his release,” head coach Graham Arnold said.

Araibi was sentenced to 10 years’ jail in absentia for the police station bombing. He denies the charges and says he was playing in a televised match when the attack happened.

He will remain in custody until pre-trial court hearings scheduled for April 22.

-with AAP