By Hakeem al-Araibi
Feb. 26, 2019
I will never forget the love and support I
was greeted with the moment I arrived here on Feb. 12 after spending 76 days in
detention in Thailand. The combined international engagement on my case is what
gave me my freedom back. I am home now with my wife and for that we deeply
thank all who played a role in my safe return.
What kept me going during these dark 76
days knowing that the whole world was witnessing the injustice? Millions of
people saw me barefoot and shackled at a hearing in Bangkok, not because I had
committed any crime — I had not — but because, I believe, Thailand’s ruling
family happened to be tightening its relations with the Khalifas, the family
that rules Bahrain, where I was born and which I had represented on its
national soccer team.
The shackles were humiliating. I am not a
criminal, though I had been tried in absentia on what are widely accepted to be
made-up charges — including the nonsensical accusation that I participated in
burning a police station at a time I was playing soccer in a televised match
— and was sentenced to 10 years in
prison. I strongly believe my only “crime” was upsetting the Bahraini royal
family by drawing attention to the failure of Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim
al-Khalifa, the president of the Asian Football Confederation, to protect
athletes, and his alleged involvement in their arrest and torture, after
pro-democracy demonstrations in the country in 2011.
I escaped Bahrain in 2014 after learning of
the charge against me, and took up residence in Australia, where I was granted
refugee status in 2017. Feeling safer, I often forgot there were still unfair
charges against me, and my wife and I planned our honeymoon.
I arrived in Thailand only to find myself
rapidly separated from my wife and confined to a detention centre.
Many people believe that my return to
Australia was a glorious victory, but to me it is only a half victory. I am
safe and reunited with my wife, but I am also reminded that my dream of
eventually going back to Bahrain will not be a reality any time soon.
Bahrain has only a jail cell to offer me,
while Australia is now my home and its government and people have stood by me.
While in prison, I had a long time to
consider how I got there. I have no doubt my imprisonment in Thailand was a
punishment for my criticism of Sheikh Salman, a member of the Bahraini royal
family, during his 2016 campaign to be elected president of FIFA, the
international soccer organization. My highlighting of his alleged violations of
human rights in 2011 likely contributed to his failure to win the election.
I am a free man now, but what about the
more than 150 Bahraini athletes and sports officials who were arrested and in
some cases tortured in 2011? Some remain in prison to this day. No credible
investigations into these abuses were carried out.
There is a dark side to sports in Bahrain.
The kingdom uses wealth and sports to whitewash its legacy of abuses, and
silences those who try to draw attention to this pattern.
The activist Najah Ahmed Yousif was
tortured, sexually abused and imprisoned in 2017 for daring to criticize the
Bahrain Grand Prix auto race, and the journalist Ahmed Ismail Hassan was shot
and killed while attempting to cover protests surrounding the race in 2012.
Salah Abbas Habib Musa, a protest leader, was shot by the police during the
weekend of the race, and nobody was held accountable for his death. Next month
Formula One racing is scheduled in Bahrain;
if the Formula One management fails to secure the release of Ms.Yousif,
it should cancel the race.
In Bahrain there are consequences for
speaking up, but I am willing to take a personal risk and stand up for human
rights no matter what, as are many brave Bahrainis. Don’t be mistaken, as I was
when I went on my honeymoon to Thailand: I may be free now, but I and many
other peaceful critics remain a target for Bahrain. Relatives of my friend
Sayed Ahmed are imprisoned in Bahrain for his speaking out against the regime
from his home in London. This week, Bahrain’s court upheld its three-year
sentence in what the United Nations considers an unlawful act of reprisal
through family connections.
Bahrain has been emboldened thanks to
President Trump, who has made it clear to Bahrain that “there won’t be strain
with this administration.” The United States was in a powerful position to help
end my ordeal, but instead it chose to stay silent.
Indeed, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo
traveled to Bahrain and praised the strategic partnership between the two
countries, but made no mention of my case. Not only did he not mention my
situation while I was still detained in Thailand, he failed to raise the issue
of human rights at all. The United States had the means to use its leverage,
since Bahrain is a close ally and host of the Fifth Fleet, but it failed to
take a stance. Britain, similarly and shamefully, avoided offering support for
If Bahrain has learned anything from
seeking to extradite me, it is that the government can arrest, torture and
repress its people and countries like the United States and Britain will
continue to look the other way. My case underscores Bahrain’s enormous power to
flout international standards, like lodging an illegitimate “red notice” with
Interpol to stop a refugee while he travels.
It also shows Bahrain that the United
States and Britain consider their own interests more important than the lives
of individual Bahrainis. These countries are abandoning human rights at a time
when things are worsening in Bahrain and will only continue to deteriorate.
I am so fortunate to have been able to
return to Australia and continue my life, but many other Bahrainis are not as
lucky. If they received the same level of international support I did, they
might be enjoying the same freedom I am now.
Hakeem al-Araibi, a former member of Bahrain’s national soccer team,
plays for Pascoe Vale Football Club in Melbourne.