Bahrain insists on extradition of footballer from Thailand

Bahrain insisted Monday on the extradition of a footballer with refugee status who has been detained in Thailand for nearly two months over his alleged role in protests in the Gulf state.

The demand came as the former captain of Australia's national side, Craig Foster, stepped up a campaign for the release of Hakeem Alaraibi by handing in a petition bearing 50,000 signatures to world football's governing body FIFA in Zurich.

Alaraibi was sentenced to 10 years in jail in Bahrain for his alleged role in helping protestors burn down a police station during demonstrations in 2012.

He denied any wrongdoing and fled the country while on bail in 2013 and has since been granted asylum in Australia.

However in a statement, the Bahrain government said extradition proceedings were under way "so that he can serve his sentence".

Alaraibi, 25, who played for Bahrain's national youth team, now plays semi-professionally in Melbourne and Foster told a press conference in Zurich his release had become "an absolute emergency."

"Back in Australia, the entire country is coming out very strongly in support of Hakeem," he said. "Australia wants him back."

He said he had met and won the support of FIFA's secretary general Fatma Samoura on Monday who pledged to take the campaign to the highest level in Thailand and Bahrain, including "the football associations, the governments and of course the royal family of Bahrain."

Alaraibi was detained entering Thailand for a vacation in November last year on an Interpol warrant that has since been withdrawn.

"He had all the rights and opportunities to defend himself in the criminal case, in which some of the suspects with him were acquitted by the court," Bahrain's interior minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said in the government statement.

He added that Alaraibi had to right to appeal the verdict if he is returned to Bahrain.

The footballer denies the charges against him, insisting he was playing in a match at the time of the incident for which he was found guilty.

The Australian government, human rights groups, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee have all called for Alaraibi's release.

A tiny Gulf archipelago, allied with the US and located between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, the kingdom of Bahrain has been hit by waves of unrest since 2011, when security forces crushed Shiite-led protests demanding an elected prime minister.

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