Bahrain drops extradition request for "terrified" refugee soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi

/ CBS/AP

Hakeem al-Araibi, a refugee soccer player, leaves Bangkok's Criminal Court on February 4, 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand. Getty

Bangkok — A Thai court ordered the release of a refugee soccer player on Monday after prosecutors said they were no longer seeking his extradition to Bahrain in a case that had drawn worldwide attention. Court spokesman Suriyan Hongvilai said that Hakeem al-Araibi was being processed for release.

Thailand had come under great pressure from Australia's government, sporting bodies and human rights groups to send al-Araibi back to Australia, where he has refugee status and plays semi-professional soccer.

Prosecutors on Monday submitted to court a request to withdraw the case to extradite al-Araibi to Bahrain, where he faces a 10-year prison sentence for an arson attack that damaged a police station. He has denied those charges and says the case is politically motivated.

Prosecutors made the decision after Thailand's foreign ministry sent their department a letter Monday morning that indicated that Bahrain had withdrawn its request for al-Araibi, said Chatchom Akapin, the director general of the attorney general office's international affairs department

Officials in Bahrain, an island kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia that's home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, did not immediately respond to calls and emails seeking comment Monday.

The state-run Bahrain News Agency reported Sunday that Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa had a phone call with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, but offered no specifics on their discussions.

Separately, BNA said Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa met Sunday with Thailand's foreign minister who was visiting the island. Again, no specifics on their talks were offered.

British Prime Minister Attends The 37th Gulf Cooperation Council
Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, looks on during a meeting in Manama, Bahrain, Dec. 6, 2016. Getty

Al-Araibi, 25, a former Bahraini national team player, has said he fled his home country due to political repression. He has been living in Melbourne, where he plays for a semi-professional soccer team.

His supporters had said he should be freed and is protected under his status as a refugee with Australian residency. He was detained at the request of Bahrain relayed through Interpol upon his arrival in Bangkok in November while on honeymoon with his wife.

Activists praised Monday's developments.

"This is a huge victory for the human rights movement in Bahrain, Thailand and Australia — and even the whole world," said Sayed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. "Hakeem's ordeal ended after 70 days when there was a clear public stance and solidarity movement."

Former Australia national team captain Craig Foster, who has been leading the campaign for al-Araibi's release, praised all those who worked on the campaign.

"Many wonderful people stepped forward to help Hakeem," he wrote Monday in comments on Twitter. "They all deserve to be in front of camera now, not only me. I can't list them, but will thank each of them in time. My thoughts are with Hakeem's wife. Her nightmare will shortly be at an end. Our prayers answered."

Al-Araibi, a former player on Bahrain's national team, says he fled Bahrain due to political repression and that he fears torture if he returns.

In December, al-Araibi's lawyer in Thailand, Nadthasiri Bergman, said her 25-year-old client was "terrified."

"He doesn't want to be extradited, obviously. He was very strong that he wants to go back to Australia from the beginning," Bergman said.

Al-Araibi has said he was blindfolded and had his legs beaten while he was held in Bahrain previously. He said he believed he was targeted for arrest because of his Shiite faith and because his brother was politically active in Bahrain. Bahrain has a Shiite majority but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy.

Thailand's Foreign Ministry said in a statement last week that al-Araibi was detained because Australian authorities had forwarded them an Interpol Red Notice that Bahrain was seeking his arrest. Australian police acknowledge doing so, but there have been questions raised about why the Red Notice appeared to have been issued just before al-Araibi departed on his trip, and whether Bahraini authorities had been tipped off about his travel plans.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had in recent weeks has spoken out strongly on behalf of al-Araibi's freedom.

First published on February 11, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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