Thais free jailed refugee Bahraini footballer

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Jailed Bahraini footballer Hakeem Al Araibi leaves Thailand's Criminal Court, in Bangkok, Thailand February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand yesterday freed a jailed refugee Bahraini footballer with residency status in Australia, after Bahrain abandoned its bid to seek his extradition, and immigration officials said he was immediately driven to the airport.

Hakeem Al Araibi, 25, who fled Bahrain in 2014 and received refugee status in Australia, was arrested in November last year at a Bangkok airport while on a honeymoon trip, following an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request.

However, the Middle East nation has withdrawn the request, prompting a Thai court to approve a motion by prosecutors to drop the case against the footballer, Thai officials said.

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“There are no grounds to hold him anymore. It is his right to decide where he will go next. He is a free man,” said Chatchom Akapin, an official in the Thai Attorney-General’s office.

A Reuters witness said Mr Araibi was seen leaving the Bangkok remand prison in a car and immigration officials said he was heading for the main international airport in the Thai capital.

Rights group Amnesty International, which lobbied for his release, later said Mr Araibi had arrived at the airport.

It was not immediately clear when or why Bahrain withdrew its request. A Bahrain government spokesman declined to give details when asked who ordered the halt of the legal proceedings.

However, authorities in Bahrain, which has accused Mr Araibi of crimes committed during the Arab Spring protests of 2011, said the country reaffirmed its right to pursue legal action against him.

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In a statement, Bahrain’s foreign ministry said it had noted the halt of legal proceedings and the verdict against the footballer remained in place.

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had no comment on the case.

The detention of Mr Araibi, who appeared with his feet in shackles at a court hearing last week, drew international criticism, with Australian authorities and fellow footballers urging Thailand to release him. He says he faces torture if returned to Bahrain.

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