Activists slam Asian Cup 'gagging' over torture-risk footballer

Activists for the detained Bahraini footballer who fears torture and even death if he is extradited from Thailand have criticised the "gagging" of talk about the case at the Asian Cup, warning it is harming his cause.

The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network hit out at the near-silence about Hakeem Alaraibi at the tournament in the United Arab Emirates, and said the Asian Football Confederation has a duty to speak up.

The comments came after an AFC moderator blocked a question from AFP about Alaraibi at an Australia team press conference -- apparently the only attempt to raise the case publicly at the event, which started on January 5.

Alaraibi, who holds refugee status in Australia, believes he is being targeted by Bahrain over his criticism of AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of the ruling family.

The former youth international was detained in the oil-rich, Sunni-led country in 2012 after the pro-democracy Arab Spring protests, which he attributes in part to his Shiite religious background and his brother's political activism.

"There is obviously a directive from the highest levels of the AFC that Hakeem's case is out of bounds and should not be publicly discussed," Evan Jones, programme coordinator at the rights group, told AFP.

"The AFC are duty-bound to speak up publicly on Hakeem's behalf. Not only are they failing to speak up, but they are gagging others... These facts point to a clear breach of Hakeem being able to access his human rights."

When asked about AFC policy for questions on Alaraibi at the Asian Cup, a spokesman told AFP: "The AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 is a football tournament. Questions on football are welcomed and encouraged."

- #SaveHakeem -

While talk about the Asian player is discouraged at Asian football's showpiece event, the International Olympic Committee and FIFA have both weighed in on his behalf.

On Saturday, the IOC said its president Thomas Bach had discussed the "worrying situation" with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, while the IOC member in Thailand had been in touch with the Thai government.

Earlier this week, FIFA's secretary-general wrote to Thailand's prime minister about the "very worrying situation", saying Alaraibi is at "serious risk of mistreatment" in Bahrain.

Two days after the press conference incident, which was reported in Australia and shared under #SaveHakeem on social media, the AFC issued its first statement for general release about Alaraibi, who was detained on November 27 after arriving in Bangkok for a holiday with his wife.

"The Asian Football Confederation continues to work with FIFA, the global governing body, on the matter of the detention of Hakeem Alaraibi in Thailand to find a solution," said the statement, released on Saturday.

AFC senior vice-president Praful Patel is coordinating the effort, and other matters involving West Asia, to avoid "accusations of a conflict of interest" against Sheikh Salman, it added.

Bahraini authorities sentenced Alaraibi to 10 years' prison in absentia for allegedly helping protesters burn down a police station during demonstrations that swept the Gulf state in 2012.

The 25-year-old denied the charges, saying he was playing in a match at the time. The footballer, who said he was beaten in detention, fled Bahrain while on bail in 2013.

Alaraibi, who now plays for a semi-professional club in Melbourne, later publicly criticised Sheikh Salman as the Bahraini royal campaigned unsuccessfully for election as FIFA president in 2016.

Sheikh Salman, who is standing for a fresh term as AFC chief in April, and is also the FIFA number two, has long denied any links to Bahrain's crackdown on anti-government protesters in his former role as head of the Bahrain FA.

- 'Serious risk of mistreatment' -

The Australian government has also called for Alaraibi's release, while Interpol has been criticised for issuing the warrant for his arrest, which it later withdrew.

Australia's football federation has been largely quiet about Alaraibi during the Asian Cup, although its chairman Chris Nikou raised the case during a meeting with Sheikh Salman at the start of the tournament.

Separately Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players' Association, told AFP in London that Sheikh Salman's position would become "untenable" if he didn't intervene.

The AFC did not respond to Schwab's comments, which were echoed by Jones at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network.

"The inaction of the AFC is a clear breach of human rights standards and norms," said Jones.

"The AFC president has clearly demonstrated that he is unwilling or simply not capable of standing up for human rights or the rights of refugee players."

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