Thailand is between a rock and a hard place trying to pick who it is more willing to upset; Bahrain and the GCC or Australia, human rights organisations, and football's governing bodies.

Shortly after the case of the Saudi woman Rahaf al Qunun captured global attention at the beginning of this year, the plight of another Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) national, Hakeem Araibi, is at the centre of another international controversy with remarkable similarities.

Araibi, a Bahraini football player and refugee, fled the archipelago kingdom in late 2013 and arrived in Melbourne in 2014 (via Qatar and Iran, according to Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs). 

Previously, he had been tortured behind bars in Bahrain. 

Since moving to Australia, where he was granted political asylum in 2017, he has been playing football professionally. Shortly after he left his home country, a Bahraini court handed him a ten-year prison sentence in absentia. Araibi’s alleged crime was an arson attack targeting a police station that took place while he was playing a football game. He and his supporters maintain that the Manama regime focuses on him for his Shia faith and because of his brother’s political activism in the Gulf state.

Upon arrival in Thailand for his honeymoon, local authorities detained him because of an Interpol request from Bahrain. He remains in the custody of the Thai government which is considering sending him back to Bahrain in accordance with Manama’s request. 

Despite Bahrain and Thailand not having an extradition treaty, Thai law still permits the authorities to extradite Araibi if a government makes a formal request (as Bahrain did), if his alleged crime is not political, and if his punishment is more than one year in prison. 

Bahraini officials demand that Araibi is treated as a fugitive and emphasise that he will have the right to appeal the court’s ruling. Thailand plans to hold a trial in April to determine whether he’ll be free to return to Australia or involuntarily extradited to Bahrain.

But officials in Bangkok are under growing pressure to refuse Bahrain’s demand. Australian officials are calling on their Thai counterparts to use their legal authority to free him as a refugee who has refused voluntary extradition to his home country. 

Pointing to Bahrain’s record of torture, human rights organisations are calling on Bangkok to abide by Thailand’s commitments under international law, including the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and free Araibi so he can return to Australia. 

Craig Foster, former Socceroos captain, is behind a campaign to free Araibi. Foster is urging all international sports bodies to impose sanctions on both Bahrain and Thailand for their failure to guarantee a player/refugee’s safety.

For Thailand, this international case poses a difficult dilemma. Bangkok is concerned about how its refusal to extradite Araibi could jeopardise Thailand’s economic relations with Bahrain and other GCC states. Unquestionably, this saga has the potential to negatively impact not only Bangkok’s ties with Bahrain but also Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which back Manama on virtually all issues pertaining to the Bahraini rulers’ crackdown on Shia activism and dissent. 

Refusing to release the footballer runs not only the risk that Bahrain could take actions to hurt Thailand economically, but also that Bahrain’s wealthier fellow GCC states could follow suit as well.

On past occasions, ASEAN governments returned Saudi nationals to the Kingdom against their will. As major trade partners, suppliers of energy, investors in ASEAN countries’ economies, and homes to Thai and other foreign workers from Southeast Asia who send remittances home each year, the GCC states have long been positioned to exert their leverage over Southeast Asian governments in similar cases involving extraditions of alleged criminals. 

Not lost in the equation is the fact that all diplomats which observed Saudi Arabia’s recent spats with Canada and Germany understand how standing up to Riyadh on issues about human rights violations has potential to fuel confrontation.

The question is whether Australia and other Western governments in addition to civil societies and human rights organisations worldwide will successfully place enough pressure on Thailand’s government to force Bangkok to determine that there more is to lose than to gain from returning Araibi to Bahrain.

Given the extent to which Araibi’s forced return to Bahrain would constitute a flagrant violation of international law, this ongoing saga has the potential to further damage both Bahrain and Thailand’s image in the West. 

Since Bahrain’s Arab Spring uprising erupted in 2011, civil society in the United States and the United Kingdom have put pressure on their governments to freeze arms sales to Manama until improvements are made on the human rights front. 

Doubtless, with more attention being paid to Araibi’s case against the backdrop of governments, activists, and sports bodies putting pressure on Thailand to free the athlete/refugee, Bahrain’s record of torture and detention of political dissidents is coming under growing scrutiny. 

Araibi’s case, much like Qunun’s, is illustrative how media storms are intensifying spotlights on GCC states’ human rights records and influencing discourse, as underscored by how US lawmakers are pushing for more sanctions against Riyadh as the Khashoggi saga continues. 

The perception of Araibi as a victim of a repressive monarchy, rather than a criminal whom the Bahraini government has a legitimate reason to imprison, is a product of growing awareness of the Manama regime’s intolerance of dissent. The odds are good that such awareness and outrage will only increase if Thailand extradites Araibi to Bahrain, where he faces a high risk of mistreatment.

Thailand undeniably has a lot at stake too. The country finds itself under pressure to make a decision that will inevitably anger either the government of Australia or Bahrain—possibly with other Western or Arab states becoming involved too, either in support of Canberra or Manama. 

The legal battle over Viktor Bout, whom the Thai authorities extradited to the States despite pressure from Russia’s government to not do so, was another salient example of how Thailand has been somewhat of a centre for deportations that garner mass attention worldwide and involve key (and often conflicting) interests of multiple governments.

Without question, Thailand extraditing Araibi could severely backfire against Bangkok’s interests. The extents to which the athlete/refugee’s case has triggered a widespread and emotional outcry across Australia and officials in Canberra are speaking out strongly in his defence suggest that Australian-Thai bilateral relations could suffer if Bangkok succumbs from pressure from the Gulf to return Araibi to Bahrain. 

Additionally, considering FIFA guidelines being updated to require that countries hosting tournaments meet certain human rights standards, the international case involving Araibi could jeopardise Thailand’s interests in co-hosting the 2034 World Cup. 

Given that Thailand has, as of now, not gone through with extraditing the athlete/refugee is likely an indicator of how officials in Bangkok are carefully considering such risks that pertain to Thailand’s footballing future and its reputation in the West.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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