Thailand: Free Hakeem al-Araibi, protect free speech of refugees and political exiles

By proceeding with an extradition request by Bahrain for refugee Hakeem al-Araibi, Thai authorities are assisting the Bahraini government to extend its attacks on freedom of expression beyond its borders, ARTICLE 19 said today. A decision to return al-Araibi, who was previously tortured in Bahrain, would constitute a serious violation of Thailand’s obligations under international law. Thailand must immediately free al-Araibi and permit him to return to Australia, where he is a legal resident.

“Thailand has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to do other countries’ dirty work by arresting, harassing and forcibly repatriating refugees and political exiles,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “Thailand’s obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression extends to citizens of other countries, and is especially important to those fleeing persecution and violence.”

Al-Araibi has been in the custody of Thai authorities since his arrest at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on 27 November 2018. He and his wife had planned to spend their honeymoon in Thailand. Thai authorities arrested al-Araibi in response to an Interpol “Red Notice” that was later invalidated because of al-Araibi’s status as a refugee. A Bangkok court will today consider Bahrain’s subsequent extradition request.

Al-Araibi, a professional football player, was recognized as a refugee by Australia in 2017 based on his account of detention and torture by Bahraini authorities. Al-Araibi claims that he was initially targeted by authorities because of his brother’s political activities. Since fleeing to Australia in 2014, he has publicly commented on the Bahraini government’s human rights record, including by describing his own detention and torture and by criticising Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa, a senior official of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation, as well as a member of Bahrain’s ruling family.

Thailand’s obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression extends not only to its citizens, but also to foreigners on Thai soil. This duty is especially important in relation to those fleeing persecution or violence, who are not able to exercise their human rights in their countries of origin. Thailand’s willingness to detain al-Araibi for more than two months and to move forward with Bahrain’s extradition request breaches its obligations under international human rights law.

“Thailand must not play the role of lackey to authoritarian regimes intent on silencing exiled critics,” said Matthew Bugher. “Thailand should immediately release al-Araibi so he can reunite with his wife in Australia.”

In recent years, Thailand has on many occasions forcibly returned refugees and asylum seekers to their countries of origin, where they have suffered grave human rights abuses. In 2014, Thai authorities arrested Bahraini activist and asylum seeker Ali Ahmed Ibrahim Haroon at the same Bangkok airport after he fled Bahrain. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that Haroon was sedated, beaten and forced onto a plane, then flown back to Bahrain, where he was detained and repeatedly tortured.

The principle of non-refoulement prohibits states from returning an individual to a territory where he or she is at risk of persecution, torture or other serious human rights violations. The principle is a foundational aspect of the international refugee protection system and binding on all states under customary international law. It is also established by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Thailand is a party. Al-Araibi’s forcible return to Bahrain would demonstrate unconscionable disregard for his wellbeing and refugee status, and would blatantly flout Thailand’s obligations under international law.

“Thailand must be willing to learn from its past mistakes,” said Matthew Bugher. “If al-Araibi is returned to Bahrain, there is no reason to doubt he will be tortured.”

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