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Soccer Player’s Plea: ‘I Am Afraid if I Go to Bahrain, I Will Be Tortured Again’

BANGKOK — The trip to Thailand was meant to be a belated honeymoon for a young soccer player and his wife.

But upon landing at a Bangkok airport last week, Hakeem al-Araibi, a political refugee from Bahrain playing for a soccer team in Melbourne, Australia, was detained by Thai immigration authorities, who have been asked to extradite him to Bahrain, where he said he had been tortured.

“Please, I am afraid if I go to Bahrain, I will be tortured again,” Mr. Araibi said by phone from an immigration detention center in Bangkok.

At a court hearing on Friday, Mr. Araibi was served with a formal arrest warrant that paves the way for a possible extradition next week. He has the right to appeal Bahrain’s extradition request.

“We want to go to beaches and beautiful places,” Mr. Araibi said of his Thailand visit. “I have only seen this immigration prison.”

His case is not only a window into how vulnerable foreigners are treated in Thailand, a country with a history of deporting asylum seekers.

It also is seen as a bellwether for how well FIFA, the scandal-plagued body governing international soccer, is playing by new rules intended to protect its athletes.

“This one player sitting in detention is a very important indication of whether it’s a new day for human rights for FIFA or will it go back to an old system where human rights abusers got away with their crimes and the victims were punished,” said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Araibi’s detention at the airport on Nov. 27 was a response to an Interpol request based on an arrest warrant from Bahrain, Thai officials said.

But this week, the Interpol request, a so-called red notice, was lifted, according to Thai immigration authorities.

Precisely why it was lifted remains unclear. But such requests are not meant to be used by repressive governments to nab political opponents overseas. They also are not meant to apply to refugees. Mr. Araibi has refugee status in Australia.

Nonetheless, Busadee Santipitaks, a spokeswoman for the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the case against Mr. Araibi was continuing.

“We have received a provisional arrest request from Bahrain and are in the process of considering the matter in accordance with our domestic laws and regulations,” she said.

“Even though Interpol seems to have lifted the red notice, the arrest warrant against him from Bahrain still stands,” said Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, the immigration chief of Thailand.

Mr. Araibi’s case will need to make its way through the Thai legal system within 12 days, or by Dec. 14, because Thailand does not have an extradition treaty with Bahrain, General Surachate said.

“The Thai court will be the one that makes the decision whether to send him to refuge in Australia or send him back to Bahrain,” he said. “There’s no big worry about this story because we only follow the law.”

But human-rights groups worry that a political refugee is on the brink of being forced back to Bahrain, a country with a record of persecuting opponents to the ruling family.

The United Nations “remains very concerned” about Mr. Araibi’s case, said Cynthia Veliko, the regional representative for Southeast Asia for the United Nations Human Rights Office.

Once a star defender on the Bahrain national soccer squad, Mr. Araibi, 25, was swept up in the Arab Spring protests in 2011 when hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis marched against the ruling family of the small Gulf kingdom that is home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

The crackdown by the Sunni Muslim monarchy was especially tough. Thousands of Shiites, who make up the country’s religious majority, were imprisoned and tortured, human rights groups say.

Last month, three Shiite leaders of Bahrain’s opposition were sentenced to life imprisonment for spying, in what Amnesty International called a “travesty of justice.”

In 2014, Mr. Araibi was sentenced in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment on charges of having burned a police station during the thwarted protest movement. Mr. Araibi said he had been playing in a televised soccer match when the crime supposedly occurred.

Mr. Araibi later accused Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of the ruling family and the head of the Asian Football Confederation, of doing nothing to stop the persecution of Shiite athletes who were thought to have joined the protests.

Thailand does not recognize refugees but it is party to two other international conventions that the United Nations says apply to Mr. Araibi’s case: one against torture and the other protecting civil and political rights.

Under military junta rule for four years, Thailand has extradited members of the Uighur Muslim minority to China, where rights groups say they are at risk of torture. Chinese dissidents seeking refuge in Thailand have also been forcibly repatriated.

In October, a Thai court ordered the deportation of about 70 Pakistani Christians and other religious minorities who had overstayed their visas. The Pakistanis said they feared persecution if they returned home.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand, who led a 2014 military coup, visited Bahrain last year. His counterpart in Bahrain, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, was quoted in a Thai newspaper saying he considered Thailand his second home.

On Wednesday, Prince Khalifa attended a function at the Thai Embassy in Manama, the capital of Bahrain.

In 2014, Thailand, acting on an Interpol request, handed Ali Ahmed Ibrahim Haroon, a Bahraini who had taken part in the 2011 Arab Spring protests, into the custody of Bahraini officials.

United Nations officials said Mr. Haroon endured such harsh treatment on the journey back to Bahrain that he had to be transferred to a hospital upon arrival. He is still in prison.

“We know what will happen to Hakeem if he is sent back,” said Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei, director of advocacy for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in London. “He made a lot of powerful people very upset.”

Mr. Araibi said some of his former teammates from the Bahrain national team remained in jail.

“I don’t want to go back to Bahrain,” he said from detention in Bangkok, his voice shaking. “I want to play football in Australia.”

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