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Refugee soccer player back in Australia after Thailand frees him

Refugee soccer player back in Australia after Thailand frees him

TUESDAY, February 12, 2019

A Bahraini refugee soccer player arrived back in Australia on Tuesday, over two months after he was detained in Thailand at Bahrain's request through Interpol.

Hakeem al-Araibi, who fled the Gulf state in 2014, has refugee status in Australia and plays for semi-professional soccer club Pascoe Vale.

He was held during a honeymoon trip to Thailand in November in connection with a 10-year sentence he received in absentia in Bahrain for an attack that damaged a police station during the Arab Spring protests in 2011. He has denied wrongdoing.

The 25-year-old Al-Araibi, who was released from Thai detention on Monday night, was met with cheers and a throng of supporters when he exited Melbourne airport.

"I would like to say thanks to Australia. It's amazing to see all of the people here and all of the Australian people and all of the media who supported me," he said at an ad-hoc press conference at the airport.

"I don't have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia. I will die in Australia and I love Australia."

International soccer body FIFA said in a statement that it is "extremely pleased" to see the footballer released from detention in Thailand and allowed to go back to Australia.

Al-Araibi's detention in Thailand drew widespread condemnation from governments and rights groups.

FIFA in late January expressed concern over a "very worrying situation" surrounding al-Araibi, urging Thai authorities to allow him to return to Australia.

As diplomatic pressure mounted, Bahrain dropped its bid to have al-Araibi extradited. However, the Gulf state reportedly said it maintains its guilty verdict and the right to pursue all necessary legal actions.

Upon news of al-Araibi's arrival, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement that all Australians "deeply appreciate" the decision by the Thai government to allow the soccer player to return home.