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Hakeem al-Araibi case: Bahrain is emboldened to take human rights abuse beyond its borders

Hakeem al-Araibi, a refugee footballer, leaves Bangkok's Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, 4 February 2019
Hakeem al-Araibi, a refugee footballer, leaves Bangkok's Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, 4 February 2019

Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 4 February 2019.

When the Bahraini government claimed there would be no threat to Hakeem al-Araibi's life if the refugee footballer were extradited to his home country - citing the integrity of the kingdom's judicial system - it would have been laughable were it not so tragic.

A recognised refugee and permanent resident in Australia, Al-Araibi has been wrongly imprisoned in Bangkok for more than two months, waiting for Bahrain to submit a formal extradition request to the Thai courts. He now faces two months more after the Thai courts decided to hear the extradition case, refusing bail and setting a hearing for April.

Al-Araibi's nightmare began when he and his wife travelled to Thailand for their honeymoon. The couple were met by a squad of policemen, who arrested Al-Araibi based on an erroneously issued Interpol "red notice" issued at Bahrain's request but revoked soon after.

In the Bahraini government's first substantial public statements since Al-Araibi's arrest in November, it denied the allegations made by Al-Araibi and human rights organisations regarding the danger the footballer would face if sent back to Bahrain. Instead, it held up its "independent" judiciary and internal investigative bodies as safeguards for the rule of law and individual rights, and called the questioning of the judiciary's integrity "unacceptable".

Those institutions' track records, however, prove otherwise.

The Bahraini government claims Al-Araibi was convicted and sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for "terrorism-related offences, including an attack on a police station". Bahrain fails to mention the court ignored evidence that only minutes before the time of the alleged crime, Al-Araibi was playing in a televised football match broadcast on national television.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have documented systematic and widespread abuse by security officers against detainees in Bahrain, particularly during interrogation. Detainees have reported being subjected to electric shocks, suspended in painful positions, forced to stand for long periods, and sexually abused. These findings are in line with the abuse that Al-Araibi said he was subjected to in the custody of the Bahraini authorities after his arrest in 2012.

Further, the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) - the body appointed by King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa to investigate allegations of human rights abuses - concluded that both the ministry of interior and the national security agency "followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody". The BICI report attributed five deaths in custody to torture in 2011 alone.

Human Rights Watch observed the body of one of those men, which bore signs of horrific abuse.

The Bahraini government has also demonstrated a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to free media, independent political thought and peaceful dissent. The Bahraini government has outlawed or dissolved all opposition parties and societies. It has shuttered all independent media and jailed scores of activists, human rights defenders and journalists – many of whom have reported torture - solely for exercising their right to free speech.

The justice system has served to further criminalise dissent and entrench impunity. While authorities have been actively prosecuting individuals solely for exercising their rights to free speech, there have been very few prosecutions of security personnel implicated in the serious and widespread abuses against detainees. The few prosecutions in connection with this abuse have almost exclusively involved low-ranking officers, and have - without exception - resulted in acquittals or disproportionately light sentences. Killing a protester by firing shots at close range without justification, and beating a detainee to death, earned the people responsible for these crimes sentences of six months and two years respectively.

The Bahraini government's oversight bodies have repeatedly failed to investigate credible allegations of prison abuse or to hold accountable officials who participated in and ordered widespread torture during interrogations since 2011. They have received international criticism, including by the UN committee against torture, which raised concerns that these bodies were neither independent nor effective.

Despite Bahrain's atrocious human rights record, its allies have not used their influence to press for improvements, emboldening the Bahraini government to take its abuses beyond its borders. It's time for the international community, including Australia, to make it clear to Bahrain that it cannot get away with torturing and silencing everyone who courageously speaks out against abuses. Thailand should under no circumstances extradite Al-Araibi to Bahrain, and release him immediately.

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