Who is Hakeem al-Araibi and why the Football World should unite for his cause
The year is 2014. A Bahraini Footballer has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, on charges of vandalism and arson.
The catch here?
The footballer in question, Hakeem al-Araibi, has been found in footage of a football match where he was playing for Bahraini club Al Shabab at the same time of the alleged attack, in 2012.
In what has quickly become the talk of the footballing world, al-Araibi needs help, and he needs it urgently.
al-Araibi has been living in Australia since 2014, when he was granted political asylum. He was also playing for Pascoe Vale FC in Melbourne.
But his world turned upside down on November 27, 2018. Just as he was entering Bangkok, Thailand's capital, for his honeymoon, he was held captive at the Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Two months later, Bahraini officials have sent an official request to their Thai counterparts for the extradition of al-Araibi back to his homeland.
The official extradition request proceeded sharp criticism from Bahrain's Interior Minister of calls to release al-Araibi from Thai prison.
"External interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain is unacceptable," said Interior Minister General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa.
But why can't Football let this go? Why should this sport stand tall for al-Araibi? The long and short of that would be saying Football has got to stand up for the basic human rights of one of its own.
In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald inside Bangkok's Remand Prison, al-Araibi spoke about his fear of being tortured in his home country if Thailand allows him to be extradited back to Bahrain.
“I don’t know why Thailand holds me. Where are my human rights? Why am I here? I am just a footballer, I am young, I don’t know why they keep me," he said.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) had remained silent, until a few hours ago, when it's Vice-President Praful Patel, also the President of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), wrote a letter to the Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha seeking his intervention in securing al-Araibi's release.
Article 3 of the FIFA statutes, the organisation’s constitution, says, “FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.”
The World Football governing body's Human Rights Policy further says, “FIFA is committed to helping protect the rights of football players and will continually evaluate existing regulations and processes and, if necessary, consider additional measures.”
So FIFA has to act.
What ties their hands slightly? The President of the AFC, Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa.
Sheikh Salman is a member of the Bahraini royal family, and of whom al-Araibi was a peaceful critic.
al-Araibi was most vocal in 2016, when he voiced his concerns against Sheikh Salman before the AFC's Presidential Election. al-Araibi's concerns over Sheikh Salman and the royal family stemmed from their imprisonment and torture of sportspeople who were part of the 2011 Arab Spring protests in the country.
Sheikh Salman is also a FIFA Vice-President, which makes matters a little bit more complicated.
Craig Foster, the former Australia Captain, met with FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura along with Brendan Schwab, the President of the World Players Association, at Foster's urgent request, where the organisation reiterated its commitment to al-Araibi's globally-recognised human rights, and demanded that all relevant measures be taken to bring al-Araibi back to Australia, where he lives, plays and had been granted refugee status.
Schwab and the World Players' Association called for the immediate stepping down from his FIFA post of Sheikh Salman, until al-Araibi's case was sorted out.
Since Foster and Schwab began their campaign to #SaveHakeem on Twitter, several former and current professionals have taken to the social media platform to express their backing of the movement, and their pleas to bring al-Araibi back to Australia from Thailand.
"Come on FIFA sort this wrong out," said former England striker and current BBC Sport Presenter Gary Lineker. Within the Australian Footballing community, there has been a united outpouring of disgust at the situation and support for al-Araibi.
FIFPRO, the representative body of football players around the world, released a statement earlier this month saying it was concerned about al-Araibi's safety and the manner of handling this case.
"FIFPRO is deeply concerned about his safety, and the manner in which Asian football authorities, including the AFC’s Bahraini president, Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, have remained silent on the matter.
"FIFPRO wrote to FIFA in early December seeking assistance, before approaching the AFC President, who is also a FIFA Vice President, asking him to intervene," the statement read.
Furthermore, FIFPRO said it would ask FIFA’s independent Human Rights Advisory Board to investigate if a breach had occurred in its human rights policy.
Australian Cameron Watson, a former Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan midfielder said, "It has been a massive issue for us here in Australia since he was detained in Thailand. He plays football here in Australia and was going on his honeymoon in Thailand.
"He has been wrongly convicted and wrongly detained. I don’t think just footballers should be rallying but the general population should be on board as well."
Watson urged FIFA and AFC to take the necessary steps to help and save one of their own and help him return to Australia. "He could face jail time, be tortured or even worse if he is allowed to return to Bahrain."
There is pressure on Thailand and Bahrain. As Schwab says, sporting sanctions against the two countries will be a huge deterrent. But, it is time for FIFA to walk the walk, after it has talked the talk about its new human rights policy.