Detention of football player ‘historic test’

Detention of football player ‘historic test’

Former Australian national team captain Craig Foster walks after a briefing on the illegal detention of refugee football player Hakeem al-Araibi at the Fifa headquarters in Zurich on Monday. (Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP)
Former Australian national team captain Craig Foster walks after a briefing on the illegal detention of refugee football player Hakeem al-Araibi at the Fifa headquarters in Zurich on Monday. (Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP)

The global sports market is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Now, this powerful industry is coming together to promote an unlikely cause: human rights.

Since late November, a Bahrain-born football player for a minor team in Australia has been held in detention in Thailand. The player, Hakeem al-Araibi, 24, is not a famous athlete. He has no lucrative sponsors.

But he has spoken out against one of the most powerful men in international football, who is also a member of the ruling family of Bahrain. His testimony of torture at the hands of Bahrain’s repressive government earned him refugee status in Australia, which determined that he faced credible threats of persecution should he return to the Gulf state.

Still, during the past week, Araibi has collected an impressive list of supporters in the world of international sports.

Fatma Samoura, secretary-general of Fifa, the international body governing global football, has called for Thailand to return him to Australia "as a matter of urgency". So has Thomas Bach, head of the International Olympic Committee, who raised the issue with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

On Tuesday, Praful Patel, vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation, issued a statement asking Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand to ensure Araibi’s return to his adopted home.

The head of the Asian Football Confederation is Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, the Bahraini official whom Araibi accused of not stopping the persecution of athletes in his charge. Salman also serves as Fifa vice-president.

Such a collection of statements of support is rare, said Mary Harvey, CEO of the Center for Sports and Human Rights, which assembles governments, sports bodies, corporate sponsors and nongovernmental groups to ensure the role of human rights in sports.

"Hakeem is a historic test case, because it’s the first time that we’ve seen these big, powerful sports bodies all come together publicly to address the fate of a single person," said Harvey, who was a member of the US national football team and a Fifa executive.

Sports has been buffeted by growing concerns about the hidden human costs of mega-events, such as the Olympics and the World Cup, that have been used to bring international glory to authoritarian governments. Hundreds of foreign labourers, mainly from South Asia, have died in the building of stadiums and other infrastructure for the 2022 men’s football World Cup in Qatar, according to the International Trade Union Confederation.

Although the Qatari government has pledged to improve the rights of its migrant workforce, some construction workers and foreign athletes continue to work in what is essentially indentured servitude, human-rights monitors say.

The 2018 hosting of the men’s World Cup by Russia was marred by racism and homophobia controversies. Both bids for the World Cup by Qatar and Russia were tarnished by a series of corruption scandals that cleared out a significant portion of Fifa’s leadership ranks. With corporate sponsors nervous about a backlash from sports fans, Fifa unveiled a series of reforms aimed at bettering its human rights.

In January, Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association, which represents 85,000 professional athletes worldwide, wrote an urgent legal request on the "severe violation of the human rights" of Araibi, which was submitted to Fifa. The brief was also signed by unions representing professional football players.

"Hakeem’s case is about a football player, it’s about a human-rights defender, it’s about a refugee, and it’s about global sport’s ability to uphold its stated commitment to human rights," Schwab said.

Although Fifa now has binding human-rights policies, they are largely untested. Even though Fifa’s human rights advisory board was formed two years ago, the request on Araibi’s behalf was the first time such a formal submission had been made.

When Araibi travelled to Bangkok on Nov 27 with his wife for a belated honeymoon, Thai authorities were waiting for him at the airport.

Initially, Thai officials said Araibi had been detained based on an Interpol request alerting immigration officials to fugitives of justice. But Interpol quickly lifted that request because such alerts, called red notices, are not supposed to apply to refugees.

Nevertheless, Bahrain has formally asked Thailand for Araibi’s extradition so he can return to face a 10-year prison sentence for a conviction in absentia on charges that he burned a police station, among other convictions.

Last week, the extradition request was passed on to the Thai attorney general’s office, said Busadee Santipitaks, spokeswoman for the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meaning that Araibi’s fate could be decided in a matter of days.

Araibi was playing in a televised football match when the police station he was supposed to have attacked was burned. Bahrain has racked up thousands of questionable convictions related to its crushing of its Arab Spring movement in 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis joined street protests, human rights groups say.

Thailand, which has not signed an international convention on refugees, has a history of extraditing human rights defenders to countries they have fled, like China or Bahrain, where they are likely to face imprisonment or torture.

In early January, however, a Saudi teenager who had flown to Bangkok and feared death from her family, avoided deportation and was eventually allowed to travel on to Canada, where she was granted asylum. Her release followed an outcry on social media.

In 2016, Salman, who has refused to answer questions about Araibi’s detention in Thailand, ran for the Fifa presidency. But his front-runner status diminished in part because of questions raised about Bahrain’s record of imprisoning protesters, including members of the national football team.

Instead, Gianni Infantino, who was born in Switzerland, won the top job. Both Infantino and Salman are up for re-election to their respective posts this year.

Running for the first time for a vice-presidential post in the Asian Football Confederation is Somyot Poompanmoung, leader of the Football Association of Thailand. A former national police chief, Pol Gen Somyot faced a scandal in 2018 after it emerged that he had received large loans from a fugitive brothel owner implicated in human trafficking.

Thailand has mulled the possibility of jointly bidding for the World Cup in 2034 with another Southeast Asian nation. After the tainted bids by Russia and Qatar, updated Fifa guidelines now require that human rights be considered as a factor in deciding which country wins the right to host the prestigious tournament.

"Sports, like the Olympics and football, should and can bring social change," said Craig Foster, a former captain of the Australian national football team who has lobbied on Araibi’s behalf.

"We’ve got to hold governments accountable and say, ‘If you want the great honour of hosting these major sports tournaments, then you have to accept global human rights standards,'" he said.

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