A soccer player who was jailed in Thailand and faced being sent back to his native Bahrain, where he said he would be imprisoned and tortured, was released Monday after Thai prosecutors dropped the extradition case against him.
The player, Hakeem al-Araibi, is expected to return soon to Australia, where he has refugee status.
Mr. al-Araibi, 25, who had been a star defender for the Bahrain national soccer team, fled the small Gulf nation in 2011 during a crackdown on Arab Spring protesters. He said he had been tortured by government security forces. He has been playing soccer for a minor team in Melbourne, Australia.
After his arrest in November at an airport in Bangkok, he became the focus of lobbying by diplomats, prominent sports figures and a social media campaign under the hashtag #savehakeem.
A lawyer for Mr. al-Araibi said that he would fly back to Australia as soon as his departure was approved.
“This is the best outcome,” said the lawyer, Natalie Bergman. “It should have happened from the beginning, but later is better than nothing.”
Mr. al-Araibi traveled to Thailand last year for a honeymoon and was detained with his wife. She was released, but Mr. al-Araibi remained in detention as Bahrain pursued his extradition.
He had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison for charges including the burning of a police station, which he said occurred while he was playing in a televised match.
The royal family of Bahrain, which is Sunni Muslim, has pursued an aggressive crackdown against calls for democracy from the kingdom’s Shiite Muslim majority, including a campaign of widespread arrests and many convictions on what human rights groups say are trumped-up charges.
Thailand, which has been run by a military junta since a 2014 coup, has sent people fleeing political oppression back to countries including China, raising fears that Mr. al-Araibi would also be returned.
But the country has also shown signs that it can be moved by international pressure.
Last month, a Saudi woman who said she was fleeing abuse from her family barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room and rallied support to her cause online. The woman, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, was allowed to leave the airport after a two-day standoff and was granted asylum in Canada.
Mr. al-Araibi received widespread support from the international sports world, including FIFA, the international body that oversees global soccer; the International Olympic Committee; and the World Players Association, an umbrella group representing 85,000 professional athletes worldwide. Jamie Vardy, a striker for the English Premier League club Leicester City, expressed support for Mr. al-Araibi on Twitter, and Craig Foster, a broadcaster and former captain of the Australian national men’s team, was a prominent advocate for his release.
“This is a big victory for that global campaign and marks the fact that football will have to play an important role in human rights going forward,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “They call football the beautiful game, and it is a beautiful day for the beautiful game.”
Mr. Foster, who lobbied FIFA officials and shouted his support to Mr. al-Araibi when he appeared at a hearing last week in leg shackles, expressed his gratitude to the Thai government for dropping the case.
“Most important thing now is Hakeem’s immediate well-being,” Mr. Foster said on Twitter after the ruling was announced. “Sure embassy staff will take care of him, there’ll be tears there tonight, as there are in our household right now.”
The Thai foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, visited Bahrain and met on Sunday with Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the crown prince, the state-run Bahrain News Agency reported. No details of their discussion were released.
The decision to drop the case came after the government of Bahrain told Thai diplomats that it did not want to pursue it, said Chatchom Akapin, director general for international affairs for the Thai attorney general’s office.
“We got information from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this morning that Bahrain is not interested in extraditing Hakeem anymore,” he said. “Therefore, the attorney general office decided it was no use to pursue the case.”
Orignially published in NYT.