Nightmare over for refugee footballer

Hakeem al-Araibi gives a prayer of thanks to supporters gathered for his return in MelbourneImage copyright
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Hakeem al-Araibi was detained for over two months in Thailand

Refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi has returned home to Australia following his release from a Thai jail.

The Bahraini national was detained for over two months in a Bangkok prison after he was arrested on an Interpol notice issued by Bahrain.

The Arab kingdom ended extradition attempts on Monday, following an international human rights campaign.

Hundreds of supporters cheered the arrival of the 25-year-old footballer at Melbourne Airport on Tuesday.

“I would like to say thanks to Australia. It’s amazing to see all of the people here and all of the Australian people who supported me,” he told the crowd gathered outside the airport.

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Getty Images

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Hakeem al-Araibi (r) with football activist Craig Foster

The 25-year-old footballer, a vocal critic of Bahrain authorities, had fled to Australia in 2014 where he was granted political asylum.

While in Australia, Bahrain sentenced him to 10 years for vandalising a police station, charges which he has denied.

Human rights activists had warned that he could face torture if sent back to the Arab kingdom.

Hours before his arrival home, his wife told the BBC she was deeply thankful for the lobbying efforts of the Australian government and public, and the international football community.

“I have had a smile all the time on my face and I can’t stop crying – I am just so happy,” said the 24-year-old, who does not wish to be named.

“I prayed and prayed that he would come back to me, and finally our nightmare is ending.”

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AFP/Getty Images

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al-Araibi’s case had garnered significant public support in Australia

A campaign to secure his release was spearheaded by Craig Foster, a former Australian national football captain and TV host, who galvanised lobbying efforts from football’s international governing body Fifa and the International Olympic Committee.

“He is probably the most famous young man in Australia right now. A very courageous young man, a human rights defender who we’re so proud for all of Australia to have fought so hard to bring back home,” said Mr Foster while standing next to al-Araibi.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted earlier on Monday: “We look forward to seeing you home, Hakeem.”

On Monday, Thai officials told the BBC they had released al-Araibi because Bahrain was no longer seeking his extradition.

Bahrain’s foreign ministry said that despite the end of court extradition proceedings, the footballer’s conviction still stood.

“The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr al-Araibi,” it added.

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