'This is my country': Incredible scenes as freed footballer returns to Australia

Refugee footballer Hakeem al-Araibi has declared his love for Australia after touching down in Melbourne following his detainment in Thailand.

The 25-year-old appeared overcome by a throng of media and supporters as he emerged from the international arrival hall on Tuesday.

“I will be more strong for this country,” al-Araibi said in broken English.

“I will be strong here, just for Australia. And Australia, this is my country. Australia, I didn’t … I don’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia. I will die in Australia and I love Australia. Thank you very much.”

Hakeem al-Araibi is greeted by loved ones. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

The soccer player thanked the Australian government, media and his supporters for their support, before being ushered through the crowd.

Al-Araibi was freed by Thai authorities on Monday afternoon after his home country of Bahrain requested the case be dropped after it had sought his extradition.

Al-Araibi was wanted by Bahrain after fleeing the country when he was charged with vandalising a police station in 2012. He was sentenced to 10 years in jail in absentia.

‘RIDICULOUS’: FFA under fire for response to Hakeem’s release

The Thai Foreign Ministry later declined to give details of why Bahrain asked for the case to be dropped.

However, Bahrain state media reported on Sunday that Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa had spoken on the phone with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Craig Foster and Hakeem al-Araibi address the media. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

But after al-Araibi’s release, Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry said the 10-year jail sentence remained in place and reaffirmed the country’s right to “pursue all necessary legal actions against him”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked Thailand for releasing al-Araibi after intense lobbying from the Australian government, global human rights groups, sporting bodies and the public.

Why was he in prison?

Al-Araibi was detained at Bangkok airport on November 27 when he arrived with his wife for their honeymoon.

The arrest was made after Bahrain issued an Interpol Red Notice for his detention on November 7.

Australia came under fire for passing on the notice to Thai authorities before his arrival.

He was facing the prospect of at least another two months in jail after a court in Bangkok last week set down his pre-trial extradition hearing for April 22.

Al-Araibi fled Bahrain in 2014, was granted refugee status by Australia and plays soccer for semi-professional Melbourne club Pascoe Vale.

Hakeem al-Araibi thanks his supporters. (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

His wife has not seen him for some three months, after the pair headed to Thailand for their honeymoon.

In a statement issued earlier she also offered thanks.

“My heart is now full with gratitude. Just so thankful that these tears are falling out of relief and joy,” she said in a statement, posted online by his team, Pascoe Vale Football Club.

‘A huge victory for human rights movement’

The news that Al-Araibi had been released from a Thai prison and was returning to Australia sparked joy among the many people who had fought for him.

Here’s what was said:

Prime Minister Scott Morrison:

“We are very grateful for the relationship we have with the Thai government that has enabled us to work through these issues in the way that we have.

“These issues are complex and our relationship with the Thai government, and in particular the Prime Minister Prayut (Chan-o-cha), is very strong, and we thank them for the way that they have engaged with us on this matter.

“We greatly appreciate their listening to the issues that have been raised by our government and many others who have raised this case.”

Ex-Socceroos captain Craig Foster on Twitter:

“Most important thing now is Hakeem’s immediate wellbeing. Sure embassy staff will take care of him, there’ll be tears there tonight as there are in our household right now.”

“Many wonderful people stepped forward to help Hakeem. I can’t list them but will thank each of them in time. My thoughts are with Hakeem’s wife. Her nightmare will shortly be at an end.”

Sayed Ahmed al-Wadaei from the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy:

“This is a huge victory for the human rights movement in Bahrain, Thailand and Australia – and even the whole world.”

“Hakeem’s ordeal ended after 70 days when there was a clear public stance and solidarity movement. The football community, the human rights movement and all of those who dedicated their time and efforts to end this injustice were rewarded.”

“While we note this victory, me must also pay tribute to all imprisoned people and torture victims in Bahrain’s prisons, and should continue to work to secure their freedom as well.”

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten:

“We thank the government and people of Thailand for their understanding and compassion.”

Football Federation Australia chairman Chris Nikou:

“The football family looks forward to welcoming Hakeem home and providing him with ongoing support after such a difficult period.”

Professional Footballers Australia Chief Executive John Didulica:

“The football community, mobilised and inspired, showcased its most admirable qualities to the world; a sport, a community and a nation united to fight in the name of decency and altruism is a force to behold.”

Pascoe Vale Football Club president Lou Tona:

“It’s been an unbelievable ground swell of support. Great to see humanity alive and well. At times we can forget about these things.”

Amnesty International Australia national director Claire Mallinson:

“Hakeem’s plight and the overwhelming support he received has received shows that the Australian public stand up for justice and for what is right.”

 

 

with agencies