Is Thailand merely an innocent caught in the middle of a diplomatic power play between Australia and Bahrain over the fate of refugee footballer Hakeem AlAraibi?
I am not convinced Thailand was totally innocent and impartial on the matter, but no matter how she decides to handle the situation it will now strain relations with either Canberra or Manama.
As much as it was a stroke of bad luck for AlAraibi to choose Thailand for his honeymoon, which led to his arrest in Thailand on an Interpol Red Notice later withdrawn, Thailand could have acted quickly and freed AlAraibi, better known as Hakeem of #SaveHakeem fame, when the Red Notice was withdrawn by Interpol as Hakeem was granted political asylum status by Canberra years ago.
Instead, Thailand chose to entertain a request by Manama despite Hakeem’s insistence that he was a victim of political prosecution (which led to him being granted asylum to begin with). Bahrain is a politically repressive state known for human rights abuses including imprisonment, torture and execution of dissidents, political opponents and its Shia Muslim population. Bahrain has very close ties to Thailand at both the state and palace levels.
On his way into court Monday, Hakeem begged to be saved from being sent to Bahrain, saying he is wanted by Manama for his political beliefs and the fact that he is a Shia Muslim.
Thai police and prosecutors instead chose to believe Bahrain and now the matter is in the hands of the Thai courts, which have now ordered him held until at least late April while it considers whether Hakeem should be extradite for alleged arson and vandalism.
Law lecturer Ekachai Chainuvati wrote online Wednesday that though Thailand is not party to the Refugee Convention, the principle of non-refoulement is customary international law. Ekachai added that the Thai court’s eventual decision will determine whether Thailand accepts this principle, de facto, or not.
Meanwhile, the campaign to save Hakeem has led some people, mostly sympathetic Thais. to call for boycotting Thailand as a tourist destination. I checked with the Tourism Ministry earlier this week and was told that 801,637 Aussies visited last year. If the boycott Thailand campaign takes off, it’s unlikely that Australian tourists would be the only nationality involved in a bid to convince Thailand to free Hakeem. The much-publicized and broadcast image of Hakeem in shackles and walking barefoot into Monday’s court hearing in Bangkok also made those who stand for human rights worldwide feel that the Thai justice system is medieval, if not barbaric.
Years ago I asked an officer at the Corrections Department why there is a need to shackle and force prisoners to walk barefoot. The officer told me it’s done in order to prevent prisoners from easily escaping. Joe Gordon, a former lese majeste convict, now in the United States, wrote online Tuesday that when he was a prisoner of conscience, he was told shoes were not allowed for fear prisoners may throw them at the judge.
To add more drama to the already complicated situation, chief of immigration Surachate “Big Joke” Hakparn said the new Australian ambassador told him in a meeting that he had alerted Thai police to the Interpol red notice. In response to inquiries, Ambassador Allan McKinnon wrote to me Thursday to say he did not issue the Interpol Red Notice, noting that he only got to Bangkok on Jan. 11, weeks after Hakeem’s arrest.
There are other indications that the tip-off came from the Australian Federal Police, who may have been unaware Hakeem had political asylum status.
What’s more, Surachate said that McKinnon told him Australia was “doubling its pressure” to secure Hakeem’s release because he felt guilty. McKinnon wrote that he “will not reveal the content” of his “private discussions” with Surachate.
The new Australian envoy added however that “it is a great regret for Australia, for Thailand and most of all for Hakeem al-Alaraibi that this young man, recognised as a refugee and in receipt of a protection visa from Australia is in a Thai jail, awaiting possible extradition to the country which may torture him or kill him.”
Despite Australia’s initial culpability in relaying word of the Red Notice, one might also asked how Bahrain was tipped off so quickly after Hakeem had applied for a visa to Thailand at the Thai embassy in Australia?
Thailand is now in a Catch-22 situation.
As Twitter user @Pcy_xxx tweeted Tuesday, “Thailand dilemma, we sent [Hakeem] to Bahrain = Australia boycott us. We send him to Australia = Bahrain boycott us. #SaveThailand #SaveHakeem.”
Given the dilemma, which is now impossible to avoid, Thailand should focus on seeking to do what is right. Hakeem was granted political asylum by Canberra several years ago. The 25-year-old footballer went through a stringent UN process to win that status. Bahrain has a record of bloody political repression and Thailand should respect the principle of non-refoulement.
Thailand cannot please everyone, but at least we can try to do what is right from now. The time to free Hakeem is now. It’s time to say no to forced repatriation of political refugees.