By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – A refugee Bahraini footballer who was held in a Thai prison for more than two months at the Gulf state’s request arrived in his adoptive hometown of Melbourne on Tuesday, television pictures showed, to cheers and the great relief of his wife.
Hakeem Al Araibi, 25, who fled Bahrain in 2014 and received refugee status in Australia, was released from prison on Monday. Authorities in Bahrain accused Araibi of crimes committed during the Arab Spring protests of 2011, charges which he denied.
“Australia is my country. I don’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia … I love Australia, I will die in Australia,” Araibi said after he disembarked in Melbourne airport from a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok.
Hundreds of supporters clamored to embrace him, TV footage showed. He wore the playing shirt of Pascoe Vale, the semi-professional team he plays for in Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city.
He thanked his supporters, who cheered: “Welcome home Hakeem!”
Araibi was arrested at Bangkok airport in November while on honeymoon following an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request.
His arrest drew widespread international condemnation. Bahrain, under heavy diplomatic pressure, agreed to drop its bid to have him extradited from Thailand.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison twice wrote to his Thai counterpart to urge the release of Araibi, while Foreign Minister Marise Payne traveled to Bangkok to personally press for the refugee’s release.
While diplomatic pressure was being applied behind the scenes, a groundswell of public pressure grew with the intervention of current and former football stars.
Craig Foster, a former Australian captain, led efforts, drawing support from Australia’s leading goal scorer, Tim Cahill, and former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba.
Embracing Araibi, Foster said the support of Australia demonstrated the best of the country.
“To fight incredibly hard for not just a young player who virtually no-one knew, but a refugee who was under our protection… speaks volumes about the character, the values and the pride that we have as Australians,” Foster told reporters in Melbourne.
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