06.02.2019 02:43 h

Australia PM ramps up pressure on Thailand to free refugee footballer

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has ramped up pressure on Bangkok to release a refugee footballer held on a Bahrain extradition request, as sporting authorities cancelled two events in Thailand over his detention.

Morrison, who wrote a letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in January, said he sent a second one after being "very disturbed" by the sight of Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini refugee and Australian resident, in chains during a court appearance Monday.

"I've written to him again because I was very disturbed at the appearance of Hakeem at the hearing the other day and he was shackled," Morrison told Sky News Australia late Tuesday.

"And I thought that was very upsetting and I know it would have upset many Australians. I'm respectfully reminding the Thai prime minister that Australians feel very strongly about this. Very, very strongly."

Araibi, who fears torture and even death if he is returned to his homeland, was detained by Thai immigration authorities in late November after arriving in Bangkok for a vacation with his wife.

The 25-year-old was convicted in absentia on charges of vandalising a police station in Bahrain, but says he was out of the country playing in a match at the time of the alleged offence.

He subsequently applied for asylum in Australia, which granted him refugee status and residency in 2017. He had been living in Melbourne, where he plays semi-professional football.

In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald published Tuesday, Araibi urged Morrison to "please, please keep fighting for me, please keep working hard on my case".

The Australian leader's push came as retired football players, professional teams and fans intensify calls for Araibi's freedom.

Governing body Football Federation Australia (FFA) on Wednesday cancelled the under-23 men's national team plans to hold a training camp and a friendly game in Thailand ahead of the AFC U23 Championship qualifiers in March.

"We reassessed our plans due to the ongoing detainment of Australian footballer Hakeem al-Araibi in a Thai prison," head coach Graham Arnold said in a statement, adding that the FFA would look for another host country.

"Australia's national teams are united in their support for Hakeem al-Araibi and we call on the community to continue to campaign for his release."

A Bangkok court extended Araibi's detention by another two months on Monday, asking him to present his case in April when the judges reconvene.

Bahrain's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Sunday Araibi had fled the country while awaiting trial on charges of arson, and that issuing an international warrant for his arrest is "standard practice".