'Football's Soul On The Line' In Hakeem Al-Araibi Case, As Craig Foster Campaign Grows
Former Socceroos captain Craig Foster is spearheading a global push to free Australian soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi from a Bangkok prison, leading a coalition of sports agencies to load pressure on Thai authorities.
Al-Araibi, a refugee originally from Bahrain who plays for Pascoe Vale FC in Melbourne, has been detained for two months in Bangkok. He was picked up in Thailand in November, on the first day of his honeymoon.
Bahrain had issued a request for his arrest on the grounds of an act of vandalism al-Araibi maintains he did not commit, as he was playing a soccer game at the time of the alleged incident.
He is said to face jail, torture or even death if returned to his home country and fears persecution after speaking out against the country's government. The player was granted refugee status and moved to Australia after he was said to have been tortured and imprisoned previously.
But al-Araibi is now in a Thai prison and facing being returned to his home country, with Bahrain having until February 8 to lodge a formal extradition request.
Foster -- the well-known SBS football analyst and advocate -- has become a figurehead for the #saveHakeem campaign, saying "football's soul is on the line" in a case entwined with complex sporting, political and financial factors.
Foster is currently in Zurich, meeting with football's global governing officials at FIFA, pleading for more to be done to secure al-Araibi's release.
The former Socceroos captain has already secured the support of the International Olympic Committee, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, plus a clutch of sporting heavyweights.
Foster has spearheaded an extraordinary and sprawling campaign targeting both political and sporting leaders.
Foster has approached Australia's ambassador to Thailand, urging further diplomatic pressure be applied to the country; has travelled to Thailand and met with senior diplomatic officials; and is now urging regular Australians to mount a social media campaign targeting tourism, airlines and more to "cave in" Thailand and Bahrain.
The sporting community in Australia and around the world has rallied behind the campaign, with Football Federation Australia, the Australian Professional Football Association, the World Players Association, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations and more backing the push.
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said the government was "very concerned" about Hakeem's arrest, while the federal parliament's Friends of Football group have written to the Thai government.
Trade unions secretary Sally McManus has also backed the campaign on Twitter.
"Football must do everything in its power, immediately, to stop the improper incarceration of one of our own and to demonstrate that one person's life is more important than all the money in the world," Foster wrote in a letter to FIFA last week.
But Foster and the campaign face a complicated set of diplomatic, sporting and political forces that may stymie the push for al-Araibi's release.
The vice-president of FIFA and president of the Asian Football Confederation is Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family. Al-Araibi has specifically criticised the Sheikh, a factor which Foster claimed was a key moment in the Sheikh's unsuccessful bid for the FIFA presidency.
For another, as Foster's FIFA letter noted, Bahrain and allies including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were growing as financial powerhouses in the sport. The UAE is currently hosting the Asian Cup, and the 2017 FIFA Congress was held in Bahrain.
The AFC said in a statement on Saturday it is working with FIFA to "find a solution" to al-Araibi's case and claimed to have investigated any "conflict of interest" involving Salman. In a tweet, Foster said the statement "betrays every principle of international sport governance" and was "morally bankrupt".
FIFA has addressed an official letter to Thai authorities, saying al-Araibi's case was "very worrying" and calling for a "humane outcome".
But Foster is upset that similar communication has not been forwarded to Bahrain, and claimed FIFA has not exerted enough pressure on Salman or his country.
"This is actually a seminal case to test the efficacy of the new human rights policy that FIFA has implemented," Foster said last week in Thailand.
Which comes to the next sticking point -- FIFA's newly-minted human rights policy, enacted after documented exploitation and abuse of migrants working to stage the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
Article three of the policy says FIFA will "exercise its leverage... in connection with adverse human rights impacts arising through its business relationships" and "make use of all options available to it".
Foster wants FIFA to do more.
"The Bahrain football association need to be intensely pressured and FIFA are duty bound to actually advocate directly to the Bahrain government," Foster told The Project.
"The point is around politics. Hakeem is a political prisoner."