Saving Hakeem al-Araibi

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The story of refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, and the global campaign that saved his life.

> EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

JAMES: I’m James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.

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JAMES: On the 12th of February, 2019 a large crowd gathered at Melbourne Airport, with a sense of excitement and anticipation. Media crews set up cameras and reporters lingered, constantly checking their phones, glancing occasionally at the arrivals board. Many others assembled too, including human rights activists and members of the public.

JAMES: They were waiting for the arrival of Hakeem al-Araibi, a refugee footballer who was finally coming home, after spending more than two months in a Bangkok prison. You may have heard about Hakeem’s ordeal - his extradition case went global after a movement lead by the football community in Australia brought widespread attention to his cause. Well, this is the story of the campaign that saved his life.

JOHN: I woke up one morning - I think it was like the first couple of days of December - and I'd received two emails.

JAMES: This is John Didulica, Chief Executive of Professional Footballers Australia, or PFA.

JOHN: One was from Pascoe Vale Football Club, via Football Victoria. And the second email was from Brendan Schwab, our Chair of the PFA, who's based in Switzerland. And they both touched on the same issue, which was the arrest and imprisonment of Hakeem al-Araibi. And at one end, you had this small club looking for help, and at the other end, you had this big global human rights organisation identifying an issue.

JOHN: My instinctive reaction was two-fold; one was, “well, what the hell can I do in this situation? I’ve never worked in this space before.” And the second part was almost checking that instinctive thought, which was, “hang on, we've got a lot of players out of sticky situations throughout the world. This is just a variation of another sticky situation. And I'm sure we can find a solution to it.”

JAMES: But as more information came to hand, it became clear that this was one of the most challenging problems the PFA had ever dealt with. On November 27, 2018, Hakeem al-Araibi and his wife had arrived in Thailand for their honeymoon. But immediately upon landing in Bangkok, they were detained after Interpol had issued a red notice for Hakeem’s arrest.

JOHN: You know, it was quite overwhelming at first, because clearly this isn't the sort of thing we do as our core business. At the PFA, yes, we’re committed to helping players pursue professional careers and safeguarding their employment and wellbeing interests. But we don't necessarily intervene in things like imprisonment. And I really didn't know where to start in navigating this.

JOHN: The first few days were really spent trying to get - getting everybody aligned. Clearly, when you've got somebody in jail, it becomes quite frantic. The first phase of this is really just getting our heads around, what we could do what we needed to do.

JAMES: Very quickly, a number of groups joined the PFA to tackle the issue - forming what would later be described as a coalition. Initially, it included the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, Amnesty International and local governing bodies Football Victoria and Football Federation Australia. The PFA were also working with lawyers in Melbourne and Thailand.

JOHN: So it was quite a high stress environment. But getting our heads around it was a, really important because we needed to know who was involved and b, we had to know what leavers we could then pull. And that was constantly evolving.

JAMES: In 2012, Hakeem al-Araibi was imprisoned and tortured for three months on charges of vandalism, said to have occurred during the 2011 Arab Spring protests against the Bahrain government. But Hakeem was actually playing for Bahrain’s national football team in a televised match, at the time the offences were allegedly committed.

JAMES: He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia, but fled the country while on bail, when he was allowed to travel to Qatar for a match. From Qatar, he made his way to Iran, then Malaysia and Thailand, before eventually arriving in Australia in 2014.

JAMES: In 2017, Hakeem was granted refugee status, which meant that his arrest in Bangkok never should have happened. Interpol’s policy means that refugees are exempt from a red notice - a request to locate and arrest an individual - when that notice is issued by the country from which a refugee has fled. Now Hakeem was was caught in a political tug-of-war, awaiting his fate, and fearing extradition back to Bahrain.

JAMES: But there’s still more to the story. In 2016 Hakeem spoke out publicly against Sheik Salman, President of the Asian Football Confederation. Salman, who is also a member of the Bahrain royal family, lead a crackdown on athletes involved in the 2011 protests against the government. Hakeem believes it was this act of criticising a member of the royal family, that was the real reason Bahrain wanted him extradited.

JOHN: If you boil down Hakim's case, it was the most fundamental of rights that got him into this mess in the first place. That was his right to have free speech, is what brought him to the attention of the Bahraini officials. So his story is deeply relevant to player rights and having spoken out as a footballer on behalf of other footballers. So there was so many layers to this that resonated with our anchoring values as an organisation. So for us to then react was really instinctive, and we certainly had to be as active and as energetic in his defense as possible.

JAMES: Over those first few weeks, the PFA and the assisting organisations tried everything within their power to help Hakeem - even making citizenship applications. But they soon realised that they were up against some serious political forces, and they had to step up their efforts.

JOHN: We decided to have a press conference here in Melbourne. This was probably three weeks after Hakeem was first jailed. We'd worked with Amnesty International and the Gulf Institute, and we scheduled a press conference for the Saturday before Christmas. So we sent out the media alert on the Friday and Friday night, I was speaking to our media manager Julius, and nobody had responded, we'd had nobody come back to say they would be attending this press conference. So whilst we'd had some online news, like we'd had - I think the wire services had run it and it was sort of picking up some momentum in our small little sphere - it hadn't really broken through to become a mainstream issue.

JOHN: So that's I suppose what prompted that press conference, but as of that Friday night before Christmas, we had no takers. So we thought, “well, we're just gonna have to work a lot harder”. So we were on the phone late Friday night, thinking about what content we're going to need to produce. We have to work through Christmas and interview all these people and pre-package stuff, and try and push it out there, and...and then on Saturday morning the phone started ringing. We ran the press conference, I think at lunchtime on Saturday, the office here at the PFA was crowded...

JOHN: And then I thought we had something, you know, in the news that night, it was the lead story on a couple of channels. So I thought “great, we’ve broken through that first barrier, we’ve made this a mainstream issue.”

JAMES: The hashtag “Save Hakeem” started trending on social media and big name players like Sam Kerr wore orange armbands in solidarity. This was the launching point of an awareness campaign, designed to harness the power of the football community, and bring Hakeem al-Araibi’s plight to the attention of those with political influence.

JAMES: And an important figure in all of this was former Australian national team captain Craig Foster, who was brought in as the public face of the campaign. From that first press conference in December 2018, Craig led the charge, lobbying for Hakeem’s release.

JOHN: Without Craig put himself front and center, there's no way we could have achieved the elevated profile that we ended up having. It was his name recognition, his wonderful ability to articulate himself that drew people to this cause. And it was him flying down from Sydney that morning to appear at this press press conference, that no doubt in my mind brought people here. That caught people’s attention.

JOHN: You know, Christmas is a tough period because people stop working, they stop listening, they’re focusing on their own lives. But I think what struck a chord with people was whilst we were having our Christmas here and being with our loved ones, Hakeem was stuck in a prison in Thailand and his wife was back here by herself, whilst everybody else was having time with their family. So that was a really important step in terms of the awareness of Hakeem’s case. But the transition that we had to then take was from awareness into activism.

JAMES: Momentum slowly began to shift as word of Hakeem’s story spread throughout the football community and mainstream media in Australia. Football fans held up banners during televised A-League games and more and more players took a stand publicly. For the most part, this was local coverage. But in January, that would soon change.

JOHN: Into the new year, I went to the Asian Cup in the UAE. And I saw that as a great opportunity to actually go into the Gulf region and speak about this issue. What we needed to do was make this an international story, it was no longer enough for it to be Australian - we needed to exert pressure or leverage where the decisions were being made.

JAMES: Not only was Hakeem’s arrest and imprisonment against Interpol’s procedures, but he also had the right to protection under FIFA’s own human rights policy.

FRANCIS AWARITEFE: From a global global point of view, Human Rights Watch was already - we were certainly in contact with them and and Fifpro had started to sort of mobilize internally, in terms of okay, well, we need to sort of start to get this before FIFA and before the AFC.

JAMES: This is Francis Awaritefe - former Australian national team player, current PFA Executive, and board member of FIFPro - the World Players Union.

FRANCIS AWARITEFE: This was an issue that was bigger than just football because you're talking about the need to respect human rights in sport. And FIFA being the only international sports federation that had a human rights policy - and this human rights policy is binding on its officeholders. We then started to build a case around the fact that FIFA had this duty to act, to respect Hakeem’s human rights. At that point, we didn't feel like FIFA was moving quickly enough.

FRANCIS AWARITEFE: Through our contacts with FIFA direct, we started to apply more pressure, and to try to get FIFA to take the matter really seriously. And to apply pressure on the Bahraini, and also the Thai governments.

JOHN: We saw this as an opportunity to use those hooks within the regulations to put pressure on the AFC and FIFA to intervene. And that was certainly the narrative that I spoke to when I was in the Gulf, and we managed to get some good media through Reuters and some global media out of the Middle East because of a covering the Asian Cup. And the notion of challenging the AFC in their own backyard during a major tournament, got some got some traction. So we spoke about the AFC’s responsibility, the fact that they had a Bahraini President, Sheik Salman, who had refused to intervene on Hakeem’s behalf, in line with his human rights obligations as President of the AFC - in fact, the person who was responsible for Hakeem being in jail, subsequently had the power to lobby on his behalf to get him out.

JAMES: On the 10th of January, Craig Foster led a rally on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, along with fellow campaigners, urging the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA to step in.

Craig Foster: Sheik Salman is obligated to support Hakeem, he is obligated to do everything in his power to advocate, both privately and publicly, and use the immense leverage that football has with the Bahrain government - his own government, he’s a Bahraini national - also, with the Thai government to release Hakeem. As yet, the silence of the Asian Football Confederation is not just confounding, it’s absolutely disgraceful under our human rights obligations in the entire football community.

JAMES: As the campaign continued, Hakeem al-Araibi was approaching 60 days in detention. On January 22nd, Craig flew to Bangkok, and met Hakeem for the first time, in prison, speaking to him over a phone - just a glass barrier between them. Addressing media shortly after, Foster relayed Hakeem’s message to the world.

Craig Foster: I asked him what his message would be for Gianni Infantino, the President of FIFA, and he said the following: “To Gianni Infantino: where are you, where is FIFA, where are my human rights?”.

Craig Foster: Hakeem is losing hope. So Hakeem is worried because the case has been ongoing so long now that he’s worried, as he said, that “Bahrain are winning”, and he said, “I need you guys to win”. And I told him that - I told him the players of the world are fighting hard for him. And I said “I believe we’re going to win the battle”.

Craig Foster: He said, “please, just call on the support of everyone”. I told him about how the fans recently in Australia had taken it on themselves to stand up in the fifth minute, and clap for a minute to show solidarity with him. And he was almost aghast. And he said, “that gives me strength”.

JAMES: The following day, FIFA finally sent a letter to the Thai Prime Minister calling for Hakeem’s release. But from the campaign’s point of view, this still wasn’t enough. Pressure also had to be placed on the Bahrain government and the respective football associations. In response, on January 29, Craig Foster was on a plane to Zurich.

JOHN: And he took the fight directly to FIFA. And that's when we built more momentum. That's when the story - what I describe as - there was international awareness.

JAMES: Again, John Didulica.

JOHN: Once Fozzie jumped on that plane, and people followed his story. They followed what he was saying about the AFC’s responsibility and FIFA’s responsibility. And that, again, really consolidated this international narrative, that there was a serious injustice happening. And there was something that football could do about it.

JAMES: Craig Foster was accompanied by PFA Chairman Brendan Schwab at FIFA’s Swiss headquarters, where they presented a petition with 50,000 signatures, pleading for Hakeem’s freedom. Here’s Francis again.

FRANCIS AWARITEFE: I think after Craig went to Zurich, and met directly with Fatma Samoura, Secretary General of FIFA, at that point, they then recognised and acknowledged that it was an emergency, that they hadn't been taking it as seriously as they should have.

JAMES: While international media coverage increased, support for Hakeem back in Australia grew even stronger. On February 1st, the same day of the 2019 Asian Cup Final, protests were held in Sydney and Melbourne. Once again, Craig Foster fronted the press, speaking passionately, as Hakeem’s situation became desperate.

Craig Foster: *We reject any concept that Hakeem al-Araibi should be - this case should be placed in the justice system of Thailand - in fact it should not. This is not just a young player, this is not just a young refugee who hasn’t seen his wife for almost two months. This is a torture survivor - I’m speaking here to the Thai government.

Craig Foster: This is a young man who’s been tortured by the country that you are working with, and are contemplating sending him back to. It simply is not right, and the entire international community is saying “please, just do the right thing and return this young man home to Australian where he’s been granted protection. *

JAMES: Also that weekend, protests continued at A-League matches around Australia, with players presenting “Save Hakeem” banners prior to kickoff. It was a sentiment that echoed around the globe, as some of the games biggest personalities and players posted their support on social media, including Didier Drogba and Robbie Fowler.

JAMES: By this point, a hearing had been called to address Hakeem’s case on Monday, February 4th.

FRANCIS AWARITEFE: We ended up in a situation when the Thai government then decided that they were going to hold a hearing for Hakeem. And so we then had to go to Bangkok, Craig and I. And so that was a huge thing, you know, because we we got there and there were between 12 and 14 other countries with representatives who had attended the court hearing, and that's unprecedented. So there was clearly at this point, we were starting to get a critical mass in terms of the international response to this.

FRANCIS AWARITEFE: And that was when we saw those pictures, you know, those really visceral pictures of Hakeem in the shackles, and that that really reverberated around the world, a lot of the world's big media picked it up.

JOHN: That imagery was very challenging for a lot of people. But after a few hours, we actually thought to ourselves, this is what people need to see, this is the truth of what Hakeem’s experiencing. And we need to share that with people so they actually acutely understand what this young guy is going through.

JAMES: The campaign had finally reached a turning point. The public support for Hakeem was unanimous, and the Thai government was feeling the pressure.

FRANCIS AWARITEFE: We had a sense that things had shifted because there’d been a series - there was at least a couple of statements from the Thai government, starting to comment on it, whereas before, they were completely just ignoring it. We were just meeting brick walls. But now they started to actually comment, which we felt was positive.

JOHN: Thailand’s position was constantly shifting, you sensed that Australian government was being more empowered, and there was a letter that went from a whole host of athletes, you know, Australian sporting champions, I think about 40 athletes wrote an open letter to Scott Morrison asking for him to intercede.

JAMES: This letter to the Australian Prime Minister, led to him contacting the Thai PM directly, adding further weight to the cause. However, the hearing delivered more bad news, as the judge denied Hakeem bail and ruled an additional 60 days in prison, in order to prepare his defense.

JOHN: So you know, whilst this is all happening, and we think “great, he hasn’t gone to Bahrain yet”, the reality is he was still living in a prison cell with 50 other people, you know, with one blanket, and a concrete floor. Time was still of the essence for us, every day was urgent. You know, as Fozzie once said, “this isn't about what's going to happen in a months time or two months time. This is a day by day challenge”. And every day, we have to do something that's going to try and help get him out.

JAMES: For a moment, Hakeem’s lawyer was considering filing a new bail request. The PFA managed to secure the money, but discussions continued over the whether or not it was even the best course of action. Then, on the evening of February 11, the news everyone had been waiting to hear.

JOHN: I got a message from Foz saying “good news from Bangkok”. And anyone who's been in contact with Foz knows that away from TV, he's a man of very few words. He's certainly very sparing with his words. And for him to say that, that really meant something was good. And then messages started falling through, that people had seen on social media - that those that had been in the court indicated that Hakeem was being released.

JAMES: Finally, the Thai government had dropped the extradition case, and Hakeem would soon be boarding a flight home to Melbourne.

JOHN: I spoke to the guys at Amnesty who were with him in Thailand, and asked how he was getting home. And they said “yep, he's on his way home, he's just checked through”, and I said, “who's he traveling with?”, and they go “no one, he's here by himself”. I just said, “look, here's my credit card, go buy yourself a ticket ‘cause he's not traveling back to Melbourne by himself, after 75 days in a prison cell”.

JOHN: So the guy from Amnesty called up his wife and said “I won’t be home for dinner because I'm flying to Australia.” And he jumped on a plane with Hakeem, they flew to Australia together. And you know, I then called Foz and said “mate, get yourself on the next flight to Melbourne and we’ll convene here and get you to the airport first thing, so that you can meet him when he arrives. So yeah, pretty surreal 24 hours.

JAMES: Like so many others, I’d been following this story myself from Melbourne, and upon seeing the news on social media, the following morning, I knew where I was going to be.

James: Well, it’s a wet day here in Melbourne but nothing’s going to dampen the spirits of people today, in the football community. Hakeem is coming home, he’s landing about 1pm this afternoon. I’m heading off to the airport to go and greet him and see what’s happening down there.

JAMES: Arriving at the airport, you could really feel the sense of community. That word has been used a lot throughout this story, but Hakeem’s plight united people in such a powerful way. As I waited, I spoke with sports journalist Francis Leach, who had been covering the campaign.

FRANCIS LEACH: I think it re-instils a lot of faith for people that, you know, fighting for human rights can have decent outcomes. It's been a fairly dispiriting time I think. We’ve seen governments and institutions that traditionally have supported the universal concept of human rights retreat from that. And, you know, there's some corners in the world now where they're bad actors are emboldened to behave in ways that they previously wouldn't, because they feel like they can get away with it, and this is an example of that. So we finally got a result, so it's encouraging that it can be done.

James: What are your feelings on the role that football’s actually played in this? I mean, it's quite remarkable the way that the community has just rallied around this cause?

FRANCIS LEACH: Well, I think this resonates, particularly in the world of football, because so many people in the world of football have similar stories. I mean generationally, you know, football was a game built on people who - first arrival immigrants who were refugees, who came to this country, who’d have very similar stories to Hakeem. And those things, you know, are still very deep within the culture of the game. People have walked in his shoes, generations before, and that's what makes it such a powerful story for people within the football community. And maybe that's why it had such a huge emotional pull and kept people engaged.

JAMES: Adding to the atmosphere, activists and supporters began to sing, You’ll Never Walk Alone….

JAMES: As the crowd waited, inside the terminal John Didulica and Craig Foster were about to greet Hakeem, before addressing the media.

JOHN: We'd arranged, through the PFA, for him to come through the back entrance when he arrived. Melbourne Airport were just incredible, in helping us, they were aware there’d be a huge media contingent. But we needed to brace for that, because we just didn't know what condition he'd be in. He might have arrived at Melbourne Airport and said, “I don't want to see anybody, I just want to be taken out the back door and taken home to my wife, because I've had a horrific two and a half months”.

JOHN: So we brought him in - I've got to say it was probably the most incredible experience of my life- I was sitting in the room with Craig and I. Hakeem walks through the door, and he's there to be greeted by Foz, and they embraced. And for me to be able to stand there and watch that is something that I'll never forget. So we spent 10 minutes in there, him just relaxing and coming to terms with what he was going to be experiencing.

JOHN: You know, but Hakeem was strong. He wanted to thank everybody. I think a part of him could have just snuck out the back door. But I think, in discussing it with with Craig, with Foz, he said that he wanted to thank everybody and Foz agreed. He said “this wasn't the victory of one person.” You know, I’m really proud of the way the football community came together, and that speaks to the capacity of football to be an effective contributor to society.

Craig Foster: I think what’s occured over the last, almost three months, to fight incredibly hard for, not just a young player but a refugee who was under our protection. And who we felt that all of us needed to step forward and protect. To see him back here on home soil today speaks volumes about the character, the values and the pride that we have.

JAMES: Now that Hakeem was safely home, attention turns to what his story can teach us. There are many others in Bahrain and other countries that don’t have the kind of mass support that Hakeem received. As the crowd dispersed I spoke with with Amnesty International’s Diana Sayed.

DIANA: I'm Diana Sayed from Amnesty, I'm the Crisis Campaigner on the case.

James: A massive day and a great day for Hakeem, but this is just a trigger point really, and to bring more awareness about more people who need help.

DIANA: Absolutely. Hakeem al-Araibi’s case is one of many that we know of, and that Amnesty works on in Bahrain. So Hakeem's case is emblematic of a larger crackdown on human rights activists within the Gulf states, particularly in Bahrain. This is the first of many in Australia, let's make that clear. The rest of the world and activists have been paying very close attention to what's been happening in Bahrain.

DIANA: So I think this is a really important moment for Australians to be more aware, and to understand that collectively, in solidarity, we can work to bring awareness to these cases and hopefully everyone has the same opportunities that Hakeem has, to go home to their families.

HAKEEM: My name is Hakeem al-Araibi. I would like to help the people like me - they escape from their country, for the war or for any reasons. I want to help them because I saw, when I was in Thailand, I saw many people there - they just want to be in a safe country.

JAMES: Hakeem settled back into life in Melbourne, finally reunited with his wife.

HAKEEM: I was so excited to see her, after 71 days I didn’t see her, in Thailand. And I didn’t know about her when I was in the jail. The first time I saw her here in Melbourne, I feel my love is coming back to me.

JAMES: He also received a heartwarming welcome from friends and teammates at Pascoe Vale FC, a second-tier club in Melbourne’s North West. But Hakeem says his fight isn’t over. He’ll continue to speak out and defend human rights, and through work with Football Victoria, use his story to inspire others, and support Melbourne’s multicultural community with the power of football. And he also wants to continue his own career on the pitch.

HAKEEM: The next step - I want to work hard to play in the A-League in Australia, and working to help the people. The football is important in my life because many players, many clubs, they stand up for me. This sport is very important for the people - not just the sport to play in - the sport can protect you.

JAMES: And, exactly one month after his return from Thailand, Hakeem al-Araibi became an Australian citizen.

HAKEEM: I am very happy to be an Australian citizen. I feel I should study, I should learn English to speak very well, like many Australians. This is how I feel, I’m in a safe country now, and I’m very happy to be in Australia.

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CREDITS

JAMES: Many thanks to everyone I interviewed for this story; John Didulica, Francis Awaritefe, Diana Sayed, Francis Leach, and of course, Hakeem al-Araibi.

JAMES: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. The theme song is composed by Nic Buchannan, with other music from Blue Dot Sessions.

JAMES: Artwork is by Andrew Weber, with illustration from Moonshine Madness. You can follow the show on Twitter and Instagram @ byassociationfc. And learn more at the website, byassociation.audio. Thanks for listening.