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In considering the case of Hakeem Al-Araibi, a 25-year-old NPL player with Pascoe Vale FC, who is in detention in a Bangkok gaol (and which we reported here 11 days ago), it is timely to be reminded of why Australia gave him refugee status.

Background

Al-Araibi was a national team player with Bahrain. In 2012, he was reportedly arrested and tortured by Bahraini authorities, allegedly due to the political activities of his brother. 

Al-Araibi's brother was one of 200,000 people who took part in protests that swept Bahrain in 2011 as part of the so-called 'Arab Spring'. Some of those protestors were sportsmen, some members of the Bahrain national football team, and some were also allegedly tortured. Some still remain in prison. 

The Bahrain national news agency – a state-run media organisation – reported in April 2011 that a commission of inquiry to investigate participation in ‘Arab Spring’ protests by individuals involved in sport had been established and would be chaired by Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa. The report has now disappeared from online, but a further report on 20 April 2011 (also no longer available) detailed penalties imposed on individual players and clubs. 

Shaikh Salman is President of the Asian Football Confederation, of which Australia and Thailand are also both members. He is also a member of the Bahrain ruling family which, according to this report from David Conn of The Guardian UK, uses 'glamour' sports to “whitewash a legacy of torture and human rights abuses”.

Salman and his advisors (which included Stevie Hargitay) denied that he had any involvement in a commission of inquiry, that it must be a different Shaikh Salman and, in any case, that the committee never met - or it was “nasty lies”. 

The claims about Salman's role in this committee had been reported for at least three years prior to the FIFA Presidential elections in 2016.

Human rights organisations such as the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) wrote to FIFA in 2013 and 2014 asking FIFA to investigate, if not ban, Shaikh Salman from official positions in football.

According to the evidence presented by ADHRB, Shaikh Salman examined photographs of protesters and identified Bahraini athletes who took part in the Arab Spring protests who were subsequently arrested, detailed and tortured. Al-Araibi's brother was one of those detained. 

FIFA initiated an investigation into the attacks but it was dropped after some players were released from prison, although human rights groups say that some players remain in detention today, and others are suspended from their club teams and are not eligible to be considered for national team duty. 

In January 2014, Bahraini authorities sentenced Hakeem Al-Araibi to ten years imprisonment in absentia on the charge of vandalising a police station. Al-Araibi denies this charge, saying he was playing in a televised football match for his club team at the time of the alleged crime. However, in trying to mount his defence, he was denied access to the footage and the Judge that convicted him is a member of Shaikh Salman's family. The footage of that match was shown on Australian television last night: not only was Al-Araibi playing, but the match commentators talked about him. 

Al-Araibi fled to Australia in May 2015, and Australia - not the easiest country in the world to gain refugee status - granted him such status in November 2017 as he has a “well-founded fear of persecution ... [and/or] substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk he will suffer significant harm.”

2016 FIFA Presidential elections

During the 2016 FIFA Presidential election, for which Salman was a candidate, Al-Araibi gave a significant number of interviews around the world criticising Salman, claiming that he failed to protect players from torture and abuse when he was President of the Bahrain FA, and that he was not suitable to be FIFA President.

Nonetheless, despite these claims Shaikh Salman passed the so-called integrity test for FIFA presidential candidates, devised as part of FIFA's limited reforms.

However, concerns about the rule of Shaikh Salman's family in Bahrain is thought to have played a role in him losing the final ballot between him and the eventual winner, Gianni Infantino, for FIFA President. Even so, Shaikh Salman had solid support from the Asian and African football confederations and lost by 115 votes to 88.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino with AFC President, Shaikh Salman in 2016

Prior to the 2016 FIFA Presidential election, FIFA's public relations agency, Teneo, was also widely reported by journalists to be briefing that a Shaikh Salman win would put at jeopardy the 'victim status' of FIFA with US authorities, if not also the Swiss.  

A football issue

While the Al-Araibi case is largely being handled as an issue for diplomatic channels between Thailand, Bahrain and Australia, it is also an issue for FIFA and FFA whose efforts on Al-Araibi's behalf have so far amounted to a supportive statement. FFA's statement was noticeable for not mentioning Bahrain. 

Article 3 of FIFA's Statutes states that: “FIFA undertakes to respect all internationally recognised human rights and undertakes to promote the protection of these rights.”

In its much vaunted Human Rights Policy, it states that: “FIFA is committed to helping protect players' rights” and “Where national laws and regulations and international human rights standards differ or are in conflict with each other, FIFA will follow the higher standard without infringing upon domestic laws and regulations.”

Because Hakeem Al-Araibi's case is an issue for FIFA, it is also an issue for FFA as a member of FIFA and in light of recent changes to the Constitution of FFA. Article 2.1(q) statesthat FFA will: “commit to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and will strive to promote the protection of these rights.”

On the basis of FIFA's and FFA's own Statutes, Constitution and policies, they have no option but to urgently intervene to ensure Al-Araibi is not forced to return to Bahrain where he is in fear of persecution. 

New FFA Chairman, Chris Nikou, met Shaikh Salman at the recent AFC annual awards in Oman.

While it is too soon to expect Nikou - who has nominated to take Moya Dodd's place on the AFC executive - to have struck up a meaningful relationship with Salman, it isn't for the other people representing FFA who sit on AFC committees and have been serving on them for years. 

Moya Dodd with Sheikh Ahmad of Kuwait (now indicted by the Swiss) and Shaikh Salman of Bahrain in 2015

Key amongst those is Moya Dodd, who was a FFA Board member from 2007 until last month, and has been a member of the AFC executive since 2009 and is a member of three AFC committees. Other Australians on AFC committees are Judge Rauf Soulio (former President of Football South Australia) and staff members Luke Bould, Mark Falvo, Emma Highwood and Jo Setright.

All of them should be using their contacts and influence within AFC to fulfill their obligations under the FFA Constitution, as well as FIFA Statutes and its Human Rights policy, to advocate and push for Al-Araibi's release. 

Act now

Al-Araibi is now on a hunger strike in his Bangkok prison. 

Human rights organisations have warned that the outcome of a similar case to Al-Araibi should have FIFA and FFA deeply concerned.

According to a report by Amnesty International and the UNHCR, the last dissident of Bahrain repatriated from Thailand, Ali Haroon, was “severely beaten, chained and put in a wheelchair before being forced to take a flight for Bahrain.” Subsequent reports suggest that Haroon had suffered such serious injuries before arriving in Bahrain that he had been transferred to a hospital on his arrival. 


Categories: Opinion | People | Asia | Football Business | Football Life

hakeem al-araibi, human rights, refugees, fifa, ffa, afc, bahrain

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