MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 12: Craig Foster and Hakeem al-Araibi are seen upon al-Araibi's arrival at Melbourne Airport on February 12, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. Bahraini refugee Hakeem al-Araibi was detained in November when he arrived in Thailand for his honeymoon, spending more than two months in jail while fighting extradition to Bahrain. Al-Araibi fled his home country in 2014 and was granted refugee status in Australia on the grounds he was persecuted and tortured in the Arabian Gulf state for participating in pro-democracy rallies. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Freed refugee footballer arrives home in Australia
01:11 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Hakeem al-Araibi’s 76-day prison ordeal ended Tuesday when the former Bahrain international footballer was flown from Thailand to Australia, where he has refugee status.

Al-Araibi had been jailed in the Southeast Asian country after an erroneous Interpol “red notice” – an international arrest warrant – was issued following an extradition request from Bahrain.

The country of his birth had sentenced him in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment during a 2014 trial on vandalism charges dating back to the ill-fated Arab Spring. He had also been arrested and tortured in November 2012, allegedly for his brother’s political activities, according to Human Rights Watch.

Speaking to CNN from prison last month, al-Araibi said that he believed Bahrain targeted him because of a 2016 interview he gave to German TV channel ARD, when he said that Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president and Bahraini national Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa was not fit for the presidency of FIFA.

Former Australian national football team captain Craig Foster, who spearheaded the campaign to release Al-Araibi, said on Twitter that the case was a “win for humanity, for the power of citizens of the world demanding that human rights be protected … and the beginning of a broader fight for the values of sport.”

Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by local media Tuesday that al-Araibi’s guilty verdict would remain in place despite its decision to drop the extradition case. “The Kingdom of Bahrain reaffirms its right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr. Al-Araibi,” the statement read.

Acting with impunity

The young player’s ordeal is among a number of football-related PR disasters for Middle Eastern countries. Some human rights organizations and campaigners view it as another example of some acting as if with impunity in the face of the international sporting community.

As al-Araibi was being processed following his arrest at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on November 27, Bahrain’s neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, was preparing to hold the AFC’s flagship tournament, the Asian Cup.

That tournament, won by Gulf pariah Qatar, ended up a bad-tempered affair, with Emiratis furious that their great rivals and neighbors won the tournament – and at their expense, no less, with Qatar beating the UAE 4-0 in the semifinals, prompting outrage in the stands.

Reports that Ali Issa Ahmad, a British football fan, was arrested in the UAE and subsequently beaten by authorities, telling friends he was accused of promoting Qatar by wearing a football shirt bearing the country’s football crest, have only added to the sense that some Gulf countries pay little heed to the sporting world’s accepted human rights standards.

The UAE government has denied that Ahmad was arrested because of his outfit, even though the country’s laws against promoting Qatar can mandate fines and an extended prison sentence.

The AFC released a statement saying that it was “not made aware of this alleged incident” and had requested more information from the country’s footballing authorities.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 19: Sydney FC fans display a sign in support for Hakeem al-Araibi during the round 14 A-League match between Sydney FC and the Newcastle Jets at WIN Jubilee Stadium on January 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)
Australia & football community gunning for refugee footballer's release, says former Australia Football Capt.
03:56 - Source: CNN

Sport as PR capital

Some of these countries, principally Qatar and the UAE, have used football extensively as a PR tool, building championship-winning teams in Europe’s top leagues, sponsoring others and – in Qatar’s case – winning the right to stage the granddaddy of them all, the World Cup in 2022.

Stephen Cockburn, deputy director of global issues at Amnesty International, said the examples of Gulf countries using the power of football are “not the first time sport has been used to clean images and hide abuses.” He pointed to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, which was used to whitewash the image of the military junta then in charge.

“What’s happened has been more overt in the last few years, and there’s been a shift in the scale of money and profile involved. We’re seeing new actors, new regions, especially the Middle East.

“Football has been caught up in the projects of these nations, as a way to project themselves internationally, (through their ownership of clubs like) Manchester City and PSG (Paris Saint Germain) – and the biggest one, the World Cup.”

A replica World Cup in a shoemaker's stall in Souq Waqif traditional market in Doha.

Nick McGeehan, a human rights researcher focused on the Gulf nations, told CNN the embrace of football is a timeworn way of using sport to burnish a country’s image, particularly to help mitigate the impact of cases like that of al-Araibi, the rights of migrant workers in Qatar, and the purported politically motivated arrest of Ahmad.

“What the sport does is give you an excellent platform to gloss over these human rights abuses,” he said. “It’s entirely consistent with their model of governance.”

McGeehan said that while the cases of mistreatment of fans and footballers by countries like Bahrain and the UAE “shines a terrible light” on these countries, its impact is outweighed by the soft power of their massive sporting investments.

“For a massive chunk of other people, they don’t read this stuff, they see that the (Gulf rulers) are the people who support and finance successful teams. There is a cost to this and they would weigh it up very carefully and the cost-benefit analysis weighs out.”

Power for good

But the PR battle can work both ways. Some have suggested that the withdrawal of hosting rights for existing tournaments, and the threat of withholding the award of new tournaments on the basis of human rights abuses should be a potent weapon in advancing human rights.

“Taking an event away has to be an option available to FIFA and all major sports bodies should it become apparent that an event cannot be conducted without causing human rights harm,” says Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association.

Following the award of the 2022 tournament both Qatar and FIFA came in for intense criticism, because of allegations of corruption in the bid, and for how its migrant workers building the stadiums were treated. The debacle “became a tipping point,” in the way tournaments were awarded, he said.

Organizers need to “make sure there’s a cost to holding a tournament,” Cockburn adds.

“After all the scandal (of the 2022 tournament award), FIFA introduced a new bidding process that has human rights and sustainability as part of the process. It’d be interesting to see how that’s used going forward as a guide for the Olympics and for regional games. It’d be good if other sporting bodies followed FIFA in that.”

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GPS Web Extra: Is Qatar's World Cup at risk?
02:02 - Source: CNN

Sport’s responsibility?

Mary Harvey, chief executive for Center for Sport and Human Rights, said it was a chance for sport to build ethics into its fabric.

“The integrity of sport is something sport needs to protect,” she said. “When it comes to events that are sports related, sport is saying that we have an obligation to ensure that where human rights are impacted, they have an obligation to act, and they’re starting to do that.”

“Sports governing bodies [are] doing things that seem riskier than they would three years ago,” she added, pointing to the pressure that al-Araibi’s case brought to bear.

“People are starting to do things publicly that say that’s not OK. We’re finding out what the limits are. Fourteen governments showed up to (Al-Araibi’s) hearing. That didn’t just happen.”