The (Dangerously) Close Ties Between Sports And Politics

Soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi's plight has highlighted the nebulous relationship between the two worlds of sport and politics.

Hakeem al-Araibi arrived at the Criminal Court in Bangkok in mid-December last year, handcuffed and escorted by officers.

The soccer star had spent two weeks in prison -- where he has remained for almost 50 days -- after flying from Melbourne to Thailand for his honeymoon.

The 25-year-old is reportedly being targeted by the government of his home country, Bahrain, for participating in pro-democracy rallies during the Arab Spring.

This is despite the fact he became an Australian resident in 2017, after being granted asylum here in 2011.

Al-Araibi's diplomatic nightmare has come to illustrate the hazy kinship between sports and politics.

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During Arab Spring protests in Bahrain, hundreds of athletes -- including al-Araibi -- were called 'traitors', imprisoned and reportedly tortured.

In 2014, Al-Araibi was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail for an act of vandalism committed at the same time he played in a televised football match.

In 2016 (while presumably safe in Australia), al-Araibi reportedly spoke out against Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa's role in cracking down on sports stars.

He suggested Al-Khalifa -- who was president of the Bahrain Football Association at the time -- be investigated for his alleged involvement.

At the same time, al-Khalifa was campaigning to become president of FIFA, the international governing body of football.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino (right) and Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa at the 67th FIFA Congress in Bahrain, 2017. Image: Alexander Hassenstein (FIFA/FIFA via Getty.)

He lost the FIFA job to Swiss-Italian Gianni Infantino, who's been accused of "cuddling up" to Gulf states like Bahrain on issues like growing the World Cup.

Infantino has also gotten behind a $25 billion proposal -- with major investors including the UAE and Saudi Arabia -- to amplify FIFA-hosted contests.

Under their new Human Rights Policy, FIFA has released a statement calling for "all relevant authorities" to allow al-Araibi a safe return to Australia.

Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa is a member of the FIFA Council.

He became head of the Asian Football Confederation in 2013 and comes from a family dynasty that has ruled Bahrain since 1783.

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Al-Araibi -- who played in Victoria's National Premier League last year -- said he checked with Australian officials if it was safe for him to travel overseas and was told “yes", according to Human Rights Watch.

The United Nations refugee agency and human rights office have said if al-Araibi is returned to Bahrain it would be a "serious human rights violation".

While Al-Araibi became an Australia resident two years ago, Thailand has reportedly continued to process Bahrain's extradition request for him.

Bahraini refugee, Hakeem Al-Araibi a former Bahrain national team footballer arrives at the Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, 11 December 2018. (Photo by Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with Thai authorities last week to push for al-Araibi's return to Australia.

Political prisoners in Bahrain can face the death penalty, which is carried out by firing squad.

“I don’t want to stay [in Thailand]. I’m a refugee in Australia. I’m scared of the Bahraini government. They will kill me. I don’t know what’s going to happen there. My life will end if I go to Bahrain," al-Araibi told Guardian Australia.

Featured image: Getty.