BANGKOK, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Thailand defended on Wednesday its arrest of a Bahraini footballer with refugee status in Australia, saying officials only detained him because Australian authorities sent an Interpol “red notice” after he boarded a plane to Bangkok.
Hakeem Al Araibi’s case has drawn international criticism as a Thai court considers an extradition request from Bahrain for him to serve a 10-year sentence related to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. He denies the charges.
He was arrested at Bangkok’s international airport in November when he flew from Australia to Thailand with his wife for a honeymoon.
Araibi, 25, says he faces torture if returned to Bahrain. He says he only wants to return to Australia, where he has lived since 2014 and plays for a Melbourne football club.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called again on Tuesday for Araibi to be released and sent back to Australia, saying he was “disturbed” to see photos of Araibi in shackles as he arrived for a court hearing earlier this week
The Thai foreign ministry updated a statement on the case early on Wednesday, which it described as “involving two countries competing for Mr. Hakeem’s custody”.
It said Thailand only became involved “by chance” after a police bureau that handles Interpol matters in Australia notified Thai authorities that Araibi had boarded a flight to Bangkok and was the subject of a “red notice” initiated by Bahrain.
“It took several days after the arrival of Mr. Hakeem before the Australian authorities informed us that the red notice had been cancelled,” the statement said.
“By that time, legal proceedings in Thailand regarding Mr. Hakeem had already started and could not be reversed,” it said.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne called on Thai authorities to use their discretion in Araibi’s case.
“Given ... that he is a permanent resident of our country, on the pathway to citizenship, we have encouraged the Bahraini government not to proceed with the extradition application, and we have encouraged the Thai government to exercise the discretion that they have available to them,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from Samoa.
Australia’s Home Affairs office confirmed in December that federal police had advised Thai authorities a person with a red notice was on the way to Thailand but did not say if the bureau was aware Araibi had refugee status.
Thailand’s attorney general is scheduled to hold a news briefing on the case later on Wednesday.
Araibi was convicted of vandalising a police station during 2011 anti-government protests in Bahrain and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia after he fled.
He denies the charges, saying he was playing in a televised soccer match at the time of the police station attack.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has said Araibi was tortured by Bahraini authorities because of his brother’s political activities during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
Bahraini authorities deny allegations of torture. (Additional reporting by Tom Westbrook in SYDNEY and Ghaida Ghantous in DUBAI Editing by Paul Tait)