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The Collective Fight To Save 'Other Hakeems' Is Far From Over

Hakeem al-Araibi's return to Australia was a big celebration. But his case was not an isolated one, and advocates say the fight for ‘other Hakeems’ isn’t over.

There were emotional scenes as the Bahraini refugee footballer touched down in Melbourne this week, after his months-long ordeal in a Thai prison.

They were a far cry from those of the 25-year-old who appeared shackled and flanked by guards earlier this month.

Telling The Project he was “feeling strong” after “crying from inside the prison”, al-Araibi reunited with his wife before meeting the prime minister in Canberra where he was told his Australian citizenship isn’t “too far away”.

It’s a familiar feeling for Australian journalist Peter Greste who was “delighted” by al-Araibi's return.

Al-Araibi was greeted with an emotional welcome at Melbourne airport. (Image AAP)

“I know what it’s like to be under arrest, to be held in detention with no way out,” he told 10 daily.

“I know what it’s like for this thing to drag on and I know just what a relief it can be to finally find yourself unexpectedly a free man, back where you belong.”

READ MORE: Hakeem al-Araibi Welcomed With A Song As He Arrives Home In Melbourne

READ MORE: Al-Araibi Could Be Freed From Jail On Bail

Six years ago, the award-winning journalist was arrested and thrown into prison in Egypt on charges of aiding and financing a terrorist organisation and spreading “false news”.

Greste spent 400 days in prison before his release. He believes it, in part, came down to an extraordinary social media campaign ratcheting global pressure on Australian diplomats and, in turn, the Egyptian government.

Peter Greste was released after 400 days in various prisons in Egypt. (Image AAP)

“We don’t know what it was that finally convinced the Egyptian authorities, but I am personally in no doubt that the public campaign made all the difference,” he said.

Al-Araibi's case, according to Greste and the human rights advocates who fought for him, appears no different. High profile Australians including soccer commentator and former Socceroo Craig Foster also generated a lot of media attention.

Fighting For The 'Other Hakeems'

While al-Araibi's profile worked to bring the young footballer and refugee to safety, this isn’t always possible.  

Thousands of others remain vulnerable and in similar situations without the scale of resources and global pressure available to them. 

“It’s both encouraging and depressing that it takes campaigns of this kind of scale to spring innocent blokes from prison,” Greste said. 

While his attention is on the over 200 journalists in prisons around the world on ‘anti-state’ charges such as terrorism and treason, the Australian director of Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson,  has “grave concerns” for several cases of other Australians being detained overseas. 

Australian-Chinese writer Yang Hengjun is being held in residential detention in China, while a prominent Vietnamese-Australian pro-democracy activist was recently detained on his return to Ho Chi Minh city. 

Human Rights Watch is aware of “a number” of Uyghur Australians -- both citizens and residents -- who have been detained in political reeducation camps in China. 

Yang Hengjun is currently being held by the Chinese government. (Image AAP)

“Where there is not enough pressure, there is real concern that people's health and lives can be at risk,” she told 10 daily. 

Meanwhile, more than 5,000 political prisoners languishing in Bahrain’s prisons are being denied their basic human rights, according to the GIDHR.

It’s among the groups continuing to document widespread human rights violations in the Middle Eastern country, including widespread and systematic torture of detainees.

Fatima Yazbek of the Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (GIDHR) told 10 daily she who knows of “many cases like Hakeem’s”, said she is pleased awareness is now growing.

“The Bahraini government needs to feel the condemnation from the international community,” she said.

“We will continue that fight and hope the international pressure and spotlight that has been brought to bear on Bahrain can be used for the benefits of the others who remain in its prisons.” 

Foster is among advocates now calling for the release of other refugees on Manus Island and Nauru -- who have similarly fled persecution.

“I’m calling on Scott [Morrison] and Marise [Payne] to commit to more humane policies for all the ‘Hakeem’s’ who come into Australia’s care,” he said. 

“Our nation has a big heart… we need to carry this compassion forward.” 

Feature Image: AAP

Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au