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The football prisoner

By Lars

Former Bahrain international Haakem al-Araibi is trapped in a detention cell in Bangkok, wanted back in is home country on trumped-up charges. Neither FIFA president Gianni Infantino or his vice president Sheikh Salman from Bahrain, who al-Araibi has said is complicit in his plight, have spoken out in defence of him.

By James Montague

It has been a good Asian Cup for Bahrain so far. The tiny Middle Eastern kingdom has again punched above its weight to reach the group stage of Asia’s premier international competition, the continent’s equivalent of the European Championship being held right now in the United Arab Emirates. After a creditable draw with the hosts in the opening game, and after losing narrowly to Thailand, Bahrain scored an injury time penalty to send them through at India’s expense, a country of 1.4 million people dumping out a team from a country of 1.4 billion. On January 22nd they will play one of the favourites, South Korea, in their round of 16 knockout match at the Rashid Stadium in Dubai. But there will be one player, at least, who in another life would have been preparing for the biggest match of his career. Instead, Hakeem al-Araibi, a political refugee and former defender for the Bahrain national team, is being held in a detention cell in Thailand, awaiting deportation for a crime it is unlikely he could have committed.

Violence and torture
In 2011, as the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East, Bahrain experienced its own series of protests. In February that year tens of thousands of people joined at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama to protest for greater political freedoms. They were put down violently and in the aftermath dozens of footballers, sports men and women were targeted by the Bahraini authorities for exercising their right to protests. Many have alleged torture and mistreatment and several managed to flee the country to tell their stories. Hakeem al-Araibi was arrested in 2012 and accused of rioting and attacking a police station, despite the fact he playing a league game being televised live at the time. Hakeem was jailed and alleges he was tortured. But he managed to flee to Australia where he sought asylum in 2014 and rebuilt his life, playing in Australia’s state leagues. But, in November 2018, he went on a belated honeymoon with his new wife to Thailand. There he was arrested immediately and set on the path to being extradited to Bahrain where he had been found guilty, in absentia, and sentenced to ten years in jail. Bahrain had issued a “red notice” via Interpol, meaning he was to be arrested on sight.

The uprising
Two years ago I interviewed Hakeem al-Araibi. It was a few days before FIFA’s presidential election was about to take place. Gianni Infantino, the former UEFA general secretary, was the slight favourite but his main challenger was Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa, the head of the Asian Football Confederation. Sheikh Salman, softly spoken and aloof, was also a member of Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa royal family. But for al-Araibi, and dozens of other athletes, Sheikh Salman was not the right person to head football’s global governing body. In our 90 minute interview al-Araibi laid out how he, and other footballers, had been persecuted for their beliefs and how he believed that Sheikh Salman, who was president of the Bahrain Football Association at the time of the uprising, had been complicit in their punishment: at best by failing to stand up for their rights, at worse, for being part of a committee that had been set up to identify and punish prominent sportsmen and women for protesting. Sheikh Salman, who is also a vice president of FIFA, has always denied any involvement in the identification and punishment of players..

A spokesperson told The Guardian in 2016 that “the allegations are entirely false and categorically denied by Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa. While it was proposed that Sheikh Salman lead a fact-finding committee in relation to the events of 2011, that committee was never formally established and never conducted any business whatsoever.”  But for Hakeem those denials were not plausible. “I’m surprised. No one was tortured from the football players in Bahrain? This is absolutely wrong for Sheikh Salman to say,” he told me. “I can guarantee he knows what happened in Bahrain. He was the Bahrain Football Association president so there is no way he doesn’t know what happens regardless of the committee. Players have been mistreated in a violent way. If you will deny that things happened to other players, what about me? I am one of the big examples in your history. I have been tortured. I have evidence I was playing live on TV. And you haven’t defended me. At least say a word about me. He didn’t say anything about me. Which means you have wronged me.”

Close call
Back in November 2009 Bahrain was on the verge of something special. The national team had reached the intercontinental play off for the 2010 World Cup finals and would play New Zealand. The Red dominated the All Whites in Manama but just couldn’t score and the game ended 0-0. In the return match New Zealand took the lead but Bahrain won a second half penalty which, if they’d scored, would have put them through on away goals to become the smallest nation to ever reach the finals. Al Araibi remembers watching that match, and that penalty, with his brother and parents in his home village of Jidhafs in the north of the country, a few kilometres west of Manama. He was 15 at the time and a youth player for his local side Al Shabab with dreams of representing his country. “We were screaming at the television, me and my family, at the house,” he recalled. “We were wishing we could win and then go outside of the house in the village to celebrate and go to see my mates and celebrate with them.” Bahrain’s best player Sayed Mohamed Adnan, who that year had been nominated for Asian Player of the Year, stepped up to take the penalty. Adnan, alongside the national team’s all time record goal scorer A’ala Hubail, was Al Araibi’s hero. “But Mohamed Adnan missed that penalty. We couldn’t do it. It happens in football. We were unlucky.”

Marked men
Bahrain is a country with just over a million people, so that achievement of getting so close to the finals was remarkable. The national team had also come within one game, and one goal, of making it to the 2006 World Cup, but lost to Trinidad and Tobago. But just over a year after Adnan’s missed penalty in New Zealand, that golden generation of players was effectively disbanded.  The Arab Spring came to Bahrain on Valentines Day 2011. Bahrain’s Al Khalifa royal family and the ruling elite are largely Sunni Muslim but the vast majority of the population is Shia. Thousands of mostly Shia protestors gathered at the pearl roundabout in Manama, including dozens of sporting heroes, wrestlers, handball players, and most significantly of all, several national football team players including Sayed Adnan, and the brothers A’ala and Mohamed Hubail. The peaceful protest was crushed. Activists claim four people were killed when the military rolled their tanks in to clear the makeshift camp that had been erected. As many as 30 people would be killed over that period. A military force organised by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who feared the spread of such regime change, rolled over the border to maintain the peace.

The players survived. But they were marked men and an example was to be made of them. They were identified in a nightly sports show. A’ala phoned in and was abused by the presenter. All the players were fired from their clubs and effectively banned from the national team. The next day they were all arrested. “We saw some masked men get out of the car. They said: ‘Captain A’ala get your brother’ and we went with them,” A’ala later explained in an ESPN documentary, E:60 The Athletes of Bahrain. “They put me in the room for the beatings. One of the people who hit me said I’m going to break your legs. They knew who we were… We were forced to endure it. I had to endure it. If I didn’t something worse would have happened to me.” Eventually the Hubail brothers managed to escape to Oman, and Adnan to Australia.

Thrown in jail
Al-Araibi had already been picked up by the police by then. In 2010 he had been called up to play for Bahrain’s under 17 team. But after one trip to play a match in Kuwait, the police raided his home. “I arrived in Bahrain at midnight and then the police attacked my house at 3am,” he recalled. The police were looking for his brother, Emad, a prominent Shia political activist. As the only male in the house at the time, al-Araibi said, he was arrested instead. “They took me instead of my brother. How I was going to complete my studies and my career in football?” He was accused of burning tyres, something he denied, and was held until February 2011, when the Pearl Roundabout revolution was in full swing. “I was so proud when I came out,” he said of his release. “I couldn’t imagine that so many people would be out on the street and asking for their rights and participating in parliament and other powerful positions in Bahrain. I wasn’t involved in politics but I thought it was something really strange to see.”

He remembers the aftermath, and watching the now infamous programme on Bahraini national television where prominent footballers and other athletes were highlighted in the crowd and then denounced. “I’m an athlete and I was afraid I would be in jail again and they would target me again. Usually, when you have a history, they will target you again,” he said. “I was really surprised when I saw two of my heroes [A’ala Hubail and Sayed Adnan] the most famous in Bahrain being mistreated and tortured and thrown in jail. I was really afraid the same would happen to me as in my village there was a big uprising and it took a big part in the Bahraini revolution. I was really afraid to go out of my house. I couldn’t image that they would be mistreated. Everyone loved them in Bahrain.”

The horror
For almost a year after the revolution there was no football at Al Shabab club before the BFA decided to demote the club to the second division, punishment – Hakeem says – for it being a club from a Shia area heavily involved in the protests. But in the spring of 2012 the club started playing again. It was in November that year that Hakeem’s life would change forever. Al Shabab was playing a game against Busaiteen Club, at the Al Muharraq Stadium, near the airport. Meanwhile, 15 kilometres away on the other side of Manama, it was reported that the Al Khamees police station had been attacked with molotov cocktails. No one was injured but a few days later, Hakeem was arrested for the crime along with his brother Emad. “In the investigation room they were telling me that I had attacked a police station in Al Khamees on the night of November 3rd. I told them, I was playing live on TV! I have evidence!” he said. “The stadium I played in was not close to that police station. But they kept saying: ‘Don’t say that because you are a liar.  You shut up. You lie.’ They kept repeating it.” The authorities alleged that Hakeem had managed to finish the game, get changed, cross the city during rush hour and then riot outside the police station in 40 minutes. It was at this point that al-Araibi alleges that he was tortured by four men, three to hold him, one to beat him whilst he was blindfolded.

“In the interrogation room they asked me all the questions and said: ‘Do you need an introduction or shall we start?’ I didn’t know what they meant. They started beating me. They cared about putting no marks on me. But they were focused on my legs. They would say: ‘You are a football player and we will destroy your future.’ They were beating me on my legs every ten minutes. When it was red they would stop and let me shake the blood back into them and then I felt them beat again and again without leaving a mark.” Bahrain’s Ministry of the Interior had not replied to questions about al-Araibi’s allegations by the time of publication.

The great escape
He was released but the trial continued. Still, he returned to play for Al Shabab and was eventually called up for the senior national team by Anthony Hudson, an English coach who had just taken the Bahrain national team job. “I had no problem with the coach because he had no problem with Shia or Sunni, only how you played football and are you good enough?” said al-Araibi although he admitted to feeling strange about being around the Bahraini administrators of the national team. Still, he travelled with the national team to Qatar at the end of 2013 for the West Asian Football Federation Championship. Shortly after Bahrain’s 0-0 draw with Iraq, as they trained for the next game against Jordan on January 4th, 2014, Al Araibi was informed that he had been convicted of attacking the police station and had been sentenced to ten years in prison. He told Hudson of the news before federation officials, he said, frogmarched him to the airport and and put him on a flight back to Bahrain. Hudson didn’t respond to messages with questions about al-Araibi. “No way, I am not going back. I’ve experienced really horrible days before, being tortured, mistreated. How can I be assured I won’t be killed back in Bahrain?” al-Araibi recalled thinking at that moment. “When I got inside the gate I waited until the guys from Bahrain’s football administration went outside the airport. And then I left the  airport. I went to one of my friends in Qatar and asked them to help me and book me a ticket to anywhere else in the world so I can survive.” What followed was a nomadic four month escape. He left for Iran, then Iraq, then Iran (again), Malaysia, Thailand and, finally, Australia. “I was just thinking of playing football and living a peaceful life.”

Silent Salman
By the end of November 2017 Australia had granted al-Araibi refugee status. He began rebuilding his life in Melbourne and playing football again for Pascoe Vale FC, a semi-pro club in Australia’s National Premier Leagues Victoria. He got married last year and decided to go on honeymoon in Thailand. But when he arrived he was arrested even though Interpol’s own rules prevent refugees from being issued “red notices” by the countries they flee from. He is currently in an immigration cell and could be sent back to Bahrain at any moment. It seems that the Bahraini regime has long memories and a lot of leverage.

The Hubail brothers were both allowed to return to Bahrain and denounced their previous allegations. A’ala even campaigned for Sheikh Salman when he ran for FIFA president. Sayed Adnan returned to the national team briefly too. “If I was in Bahrain, you would not hear something bad from me about Sheikh Salman,” said al-Araibi. “If I said anything opposite I would be mistreated and in jail. This can happen to me. They changed their words because they are in fear.”

Sheikh Salman has made no public comment about Hakeem al-Araibi’s case. An AFC spokesperson told Josimar that the AFC “is working with many stakeholders, including FIFA and the FA of Thailand, on this matter. While this work is on-going we will make no further comment.”

Whilst in detention Hakeem has spoken out about his ordeal and urged Infantino to intervene. He too has not made any public comment. There has also been controversy in Australia about how Hakeem came to be arrested in the first place after it was revealed that it was the Australian authorities that alerted Thailand and Bahrain to his presence in the first place. “I miss home and if they told me I could get back tomorrow I would, because it is my home,” Hakeem had said back in 2016. “I’m really happy in Australia. It feels like my second home. They have treated me really well and I am doing really well here.” The next few weeks will decide Hakeem al-Araibi’s fate. Will he be returned to Australia, or sent back to Bahrain and an uncertain future?

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