Refugee Bahraini footballer returns home to Australia after Thai detention
CGTN

Refugee Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, who was held in a Thai prison for more than two months at the Gulf state's request, arrived in Melbourne on Tuesday. 

A throng of well wishers decked in #SAVEHAKEEM T-shirts cheered and sang the football anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone" as they greeted the 25-year-old defender at the Melbourne Airport. 

"I want to thank Australia," said a smiling Araibi, adding that "this is my country."

"I don't have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia. I will die in Australia and I love Australia," he said after he disembarked in Melbourne airport from a Thai Airways flight. 

Supporters of refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi wait for his arrival at Melbourne Airport, February 12, 2019. /VCG Photo

Supporters of refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi wait for his arrival at Melbourne Airport, February 12, 2019. /VCG Photo

The 25-year-old, who fled Bahrain in 2014 and received refugee status in Australia, was released from prison on Monday. 

Araibi was detained on November 27 while on honeymoon following an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain's request.

His detention drew widespread international condemnation. Under heavy diplomatic pressure, Bahrain agreed to drop its bid to have him extradited from Thailand. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison led celebration of Araibi's release, saying many Australians' prayers had been answered.

Jailed Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi leaves Thailand's Criminal Court in Bangkok, February 4, 2019. /VCG Photo

Jailed Bahraini footballer Hakeem al-Araibi leaves Thailand's Criminal Court in Bangkok, February 4, 2019. /VCG Photo

"Hakeem is coming home," he said in Canberra. "We have seen the picture of him on the plane, with a smile on his face, and that's great to see."

The case had also become a cause celebre in the football world, with stars like Didier Drogba calling for Araibi's release and FIFA urging the Thai football authorities to intervene.

The international football governing body on Monday thanked Thailand in a statement for "doing the right thing" and said it hoped the athlete "will be able to resume his footballing career soon."

People hold up banners at a rally supporting Bahraini refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi in Melbourne, February 2, 2019. /VCG Photo

People hold up banners at a rally supporting Bahraini refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi in Melbourne, February 2, 2019. /VCG Photo

Former Australian football captain Craig Foster, who led a campaign in the sporting community for Araibi's freedom, expressed his "deepest gratitude" for the news. "My thanks go to the wonderful people of Thailand for your support and to the Thai (government) for upholding international law," Foster posted on Twitter.

Bahrain's reversal of Araibi's extradition is surprising.

Only last week the Gulf state issued a statement defending its decision to pursue the footballer after he fled while awaiting trial, and he was convicted in absentia in 2014 for damaging a police station.

Former Australian football captain Craig Foster speaks to media upon his arrival with footballer Hakeem al-Araibi at the airport in Melbourne, February 12, 2019. /VCG Photo

Former Australian football captain Craig Foster speaks to media upon his arrival with footballer Hakeem al-Araibi at the airport in Melbourne, February 12, 2019. /VCG Photo

But Araibi says his prosecution was motivated by his criticism of Asian Football Confederation President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of Bahrain's ruling family.

A statement from Bahrain's foreign ministry on Monday said it "takes note of the halt in legal proceedings" though it did not confirm it had withdrawn its extradition request.

"The guilty verdict against Mr. Al Araibi remains in place. Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against (Araibi)," the statement said.

Source(s): AFP ,Reuters