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    Thailand releases soccer player who faced extradition to Bahrain

    Refugee soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi left the criminal court in Bangkok last week after a hearing.
    Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press/File 2019
    Refugee soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi left the criminal court in Bangkok last week after a hearing.

    A soccer player who was jailed in Thailand and faced being sent back to his native Bahrain, where he said he would be imprisoned and tortured, was released Monday after Thai prosecutors dropped the extradition case against him.

    The player, Hakeem al-Araibi, is expected to return soon to Australia, where he has refugee status.

    Araibi, 25, who had been a star defender for the Bahrain national soccer team, fled the small Gulf nation in 2011 during a crackdown on Arab Spring protesters. He said he had been tortured by government security forces. He has been playing soccer for a minor team in Melbourne.

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    After his arrest in November at an airport in Bangkok, he became the focus of lobbying by diplomats, prominent sports figures, and a social media campaign under the hashtag #savehakeem.

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    A lawyer for Araibi said that he would fly back to Australia as soon as his departure was approved.

    “This is the best outcome,” said the lawyer, Natalie Bergman. “It should have happened from the beginning, but later is better than nothing.”

    Araibi traveled to Thailand last year for a honeymoon and was detained with his wife. She was released, but Araibi remained in detention as Bahrain pursued his extradition.

    He had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison for charges including the burning of a police station, which he said occurred while he was playing in a televised match.

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    The royal family of Bahrain, which is Sunni Muslim, has pursued an aggressive crackdown against calls for democracy from the kingdom’s Shi’ite Muslim majority, including a campaign of widespread arrests and many convictions on what human rights groups say are trumped-up charges.

    Thailand, which has been run by a military junta since a 2014 coup, has sent people fleeing political oppression back to countries including China, raising fears that Araibi would also be returned.

    But the country has also shown signs that it can be moved by international pressure.

    Araibi received widespread support from the international sports world.

    The decision to drop the case came after the government of Bahrain told Thai diplomats that it did not want to pursue it, said Chatchom Akapin, director general for international affairs for the Thai attorney general’s office.