A man’s freedom and rights are at stake as the world’s two major sporting bodies are presented with a huge challenge
It was consummate timing, impeccably planned to demonstrate the contemptuousness with which Bahrain has treated international sport throughout the travesty of justice regarding Hakeem al-Araibi.
On the day of the 2019 Asian Cup final, under the auspices of Fifa and in the presence of its president, Gianni Infantino, the Bahrain government’s iniquitous extradition order was submitted to a court hearing by Thai authorities.
The order prolongs the psychological distress of a football player and refugee in a Thai jail for at least another 60 days, although the prime minister of Thailand, General Prayut Chan-Ocha, has discretion throughout to reject this politically motivated, retributive case at any time.
We continue to urge him to do so in the interests of Thailand’s international reputation and stated commitment to international law.
Infantino joined the Asian Football Confederation president, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa – the Bahraini who had been silent throughout – to hand out the winners’ medals in Abu Dhabi.
It came after Sheikh Salman announced he felt able to recuse himself from the most basic obligation of any football official to protect a player’s human rights.
The message was clear: we are above international law, and above Fifa.
This, only days after the Fifa secretary-general, Fatma Samoura, had met with me and Brendan Schwab, the executive director of World Players Association, and was briefed on extremely concerning aspects of Al-Araibi’s case.
She was moved to issue a joint communique escalating Al-Araibi’s plight to emergency status and calling on both Bahrain and Thailand to withdraw.
Bahrain responded by effectively declaring war on international sport, on the day their regional confederation held its showpiece event, in which Al-Araibi should have been participating had he not been incarcerated, tortured and convicted in absentia some years ago.
This has now become a battle for the soul of all sport and the question is: how does football and the Olympic movement respond?
Fifa has requested a meeting with the prime minister of Thailand, to no avail. Pressure must be maintained on both sides but it is clear the power lies with Bahrain.
The challenge for Infantino and Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, is to ensure the principles of sport that we sell to the world, that commercial partners pay billions to be associated with and that players truly believe in, are upheld.
These values reside in Al-Araibi, a human rights defender and brave young man, and present the most severe challenge to the world’s two major sporting bodies in recent memory.
It is Bahrain who have sought to have Al-Araibi refouled, who have pressured the Thai government to acquiesce, and who have shown the world their law is above that of the international community of nations.
And the world needs to understand very clearly both the dynamics of this case, and the challenge it represents to the foundations of global sport. Al-Araibi has become a symbol of hope and that is the most dangerous quality of all for those who seek to maintain rule.
Nothing is going to stop this process without the most strenuous response from international sport and governments because ultimately, this is not about extradition, it is about control, authority and retribution.
And sport will need to reevaluate its priorities, immediately. Politics and the influence of money have seeped slowly into the arteries of global football, spreading like a virus until, one day, it flexes its authority and changes the foundations of a game. And a world.
Sheikh Salman was implicated in the crackdown of athletes in 2011-12, as was head of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, and yet, ruinously, they sit in positions of immense prestige and authority in global sport.
And now it is time for sport to pay the price.
An athlete and football player may be sacrificed against international legal norms to exert authority, against every value that sport stands for.
Membership of the international sporting community carries the basic obligation to respect humanitarian values and to treat participants, of all people, with the utmost care and respect. And when this is breached, membership of both nations should be in immediate endangerment.
A ruling family has one member in charge of their Olympic committee and another the Asian Football Confederation. And their government is moving apace to refoul a footballer for retributive purposes against the fundamentals of international law, which both Fifa and the IOC have committed to uphold.
Sport has not faced such a challenge under the tenure of Infantino and Bach, who will each be defined by the response they make.
Either they will override all political and economic considerations and consider the suspension of both nations from the international sporting community, or the new reality of world sport will cost a young man’s freedom and rights, perhaps even his life.
- Craig Foster is a former Socceroos captain. He is now a television analyst for SBS and an Amnesty human rights and refugee ambassador