The chances are that you probably haven’t
heard of Hakeem al Araibi. The Bahraini centre back plays for Pascoe Vale FC, a semi-pro
club in Australia’s National Premier Leagues Victoria. But he was once considered one of
the Bahrain national team’s brightest talents at a time when the tiny Gulf Kingdom was considered
one of the best underdog sides in Asia. Despite a population of over a million people, Bahrain
missed out on both the 2006 and 2010 World Cup finals after losing by a single goal in
consecutive intercontinental play offs. But that’s when it all started to go wrong in
Bahraini football. In 2011, with the Arab Spring spreading through
the Middle East, Bahrain experienced its own series of protests. In February that year
tens of thousands of people joined at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama to
protest for greater political freedoms. They were put down violently and in the aftermath
dozens of footballers, sports men and women were targeted by the Bahraini authorities
for exercising their right to protests. Many have alleged torture and mistreatment and
several managed to flee the country to tell their stories. Hakeem al Araibi was arrested
in 2012 and accused of rioting and attacking a police station. The problem was that he
was actually playing a league game at the time of the alleged riot. Hakeem was jailed for three monthas and claimed
he was tortured. But he managed to flee to Australia where he sought asylum in 2014 and
rebuilt his life, playing in Australia’s state leagues. But, in November, he went on a belated
honeymoon with his new wife to Thailand. There he was arrested immediately and set on the
path to being extradited to Bahrain where he had been found guilty, in absentia, and
sentenced to ten years in jail. Bahrain had issued a “red notice” via Interpol, an
international police organisation, meaning he was to be arrested on sight. He is currently
sitting in a detention centre in Bangkok, threatened with deportation. But his story
is about more than one persecuted refugee’s fight against being returned to an uncertain
future. It is about how regimes punish those that speak out, and how football and the Asian
Football Confederation became complicit in that persecution. Things looked much rosier back in November
2009. Bahrain was on the verge of something special. They had reached the final intercontinental
play off for the 2010 World Cup finals and would play New Zealand. The Red dominated
the All Whites in Manama but just couldn’t score and the game ended 0-0. In the return
match New Zealand took the lead but Bahrain won a second half penalty which if they’d
scored would have put them through on away goals. But it was missed by Sayed Adnan, who
that year had been nominated for Asian Player of the Year, and the World Cup slipped away. Just over a year later that golden generation
of players was effectively disbanded. The Arab Spring came to Bahrain on Valentines
Day 2011. Bahrain’s Al Khalifa royal family and the ruling elite are largely Sunni Muslim
but the vast majority of the population is Shia. Thousands of largely shia protestors
gathered at the pearl roundabout in Manama, including dozens of sporting heroes, wrestlers,
handball players, and most significantly of all, several national football team players
including Sayed Adnan, and the brothers A’ala and Mohamed Hubail. A’ala was the country’s
all time leading goal scorer. But the peaceful protest was crushed. Activists claim four
people were killed when the military rolled their tanks in to clear the makeshift camp
that had been erected. As many as 30 people would be killed over that period. A military
force organised by the UAE, Qatar and Saudi, who feared the spread of such regime change,
rolled over the border to maintain the peace. The players survived. But they were marked
men. The three, as well as Bahrain’s goalkeeper, had been spotted at the protests and an example
was to be made of them. They were identified in a nightly sports show. A’ala phoned in
and was abused by the presenter. All the players were fired from their clubs and effectively
banned from the national team. The next day they were all arrested. “We saw some masked
men get out of the car. They said: ‘Captain A’ala get your brother’ and we went with
them,” A’ala later explained in an ESPN documentary, E:60 The Athletes of Bahrain.
“They put me in the room for the beatings. One of the people who hit me said I’m going
to break your legs. They knew who we were… We were forced to endure it. I had to endure
it. If I didn’t something worse would have happened to me.” Eventually the Hubail brothers
managed to escape to Oman, and Adnan to Australia. “The violence and abuse is so huge. We have
too much work. We can’t cope here. A lot of doctors, a lot of people have been targeted,
soccer players, basketball players, teachers, unionists,’ said Nabeel Rajab, Bahrain’s
leading human rights activist, back in 2012. “The people who are in charge, they don’t
care about international image. They are military people. All of the sport associations are
headed by the royal family. We have 100 associations headed by the royal family.” And this was the problem. The president of
the Bahrain Football Association, who had stood by as players were targeted for expressing
their political beliefs, was Sheikh Salman bin Khalifa, a leading member of the royal
family. He would later become president of the Asian Football Confederation and narrowly
lost to Gianni Infantino in the 2016 FIFA presidential campaign. During the FIFA presidential
campaign Sheikh Salman’s alleged role in the persecution of players became front page news.
Hakeem al Araibi accused him of not doing enough to protect him nor his fellow players,
which is strongly denied. But far from protecting the players, Bahrain’s
state news agency reported that Sheikh Salman would head up a committee to identify any
footballers that had participated in the protests. Sheikh Salman would later deny any involvement
to The Guardian, and claimed that: “The allegations are entirely false and categorically
denied by Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa. While it was proposed that Sheikh Salman lead
a fact-finding committee in relation to the events of 2011, that committee was never formally
established and never conducted any business whatsoever.” At least 150 sports men, women
and officials were suspended. Nabeel Rajeeb, the human rights activist, was also eventually
jailed for five years for sending tweets that outlined his allegations of torture taking
place in Bahrain’s infamous Jaw Prison. But sporadic unrest and protests continued.
So when a police station in Manama was attacked, eventually the authorities came to Hakeem
al Araibi’s door. Both he and his brother were arrested, tried and, it was alleged,
tortured. “They blindfolded me. They held me really tight and one started to beat my
legs really hard saying: “You will not play soccer again. We will destroy your future,”
Hakeem said in an interview with the New York Times. Hekeem managed to escape but his brother
remains in prison. Eventually he was given leave to stay in Australia in 2017 and begin
to rebuild his life. But when he arrived in Thailand he was arrested even though Interpol’s
own rules prevent refugees from being issued “red notices” by the countries they flee
from. He is currently in an immigration cell and could be sent home any moment. It seems
that the Bahraini regime has long memories and a lot of leverage. The Hubail brothers
were both allowed to return to Bahrain and denounced their previous allegations. A’ala
even campaigned for Sheikh Salman when he ran for FIFA president. Sayed Adnan returned
to the national team briefly too. But Hakeem al Araibi is unlikely to be afforded the same
luxury. His club Pascoe Vale FC has begged FIFA and even the Thai government to intervene.
FIFA has released an anaemic statement calling for Al Araibi’s return. The AFC has not commented
but Sheikh Salman has other business to attend to. He has a re-election campaign to run.
Meanwhile Hakeem al Araibi awaits his fate. “Bahrain is a state that has no human rights.,”
he told Human Rights Watch from his holding cell. “My life is in danger. FIFA should
protect me and all players. I want to tell President Infantino that he has the power
to save my life – and I am asking him to help.”