Mathew Leckie was stopped from answering a question about detained soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi. Picture: AFP
Mathew Leckie was stopped from answering a question about detained soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi. Picture: AFP

Socceroos gagged over abandoned Aussie soccer player

The politics surrounding Hakeem al-Araibi's detention have been further underlined at the Asian Cup, where an Asian Football Confederation official blocked a journalist's question to the Socceroos about the Australian-based refugee.

On the same day FIFA implored the Thai government to release the Bahraini dissident locked up in a Bangkok jail for the last two months, a reporter at Australia's quarter-final pre-match press conference in the United Arab Emirates attempted to ask Socceroos forward Mathew Leckie how he felt about the situation that's gained global attention and sparked criticism of numerous organisations.

Under the most heat is the AFC, whose president Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa is also a Bahraini royal who al-Araibi has previously criticised.

"This is slightly off the point of tomorrow's game but I just wondered if you've been following the case of Hakeem al-Araibi, the player who's detailed in Thailand, and if you had any messages for him or his situation?" the journalist asked.

Before Leckie had a chance to answer he was swiftly cut off by the AFC official moderating the press conference.

"We would appreciate, let's stick to tomorrow's match, this is a pre-match press conference," the moderator said.

"Any other things regarding this, let's do it next time. Next time you will be in touch directly with the team and team media officer."

Hakeem al-Araibi has been locked in a Thailand jail for two months. Picture: Ian Currie
Hakeem al-Araibi has been locked in a Thailand jail for two months. Picture: Ian Currie

Socceroos coach Graham Arnold then said "I think the FFA have addressed that" and proceedings moved on ahead of Australia's clash with the UAE.

It was the first time Socceroos players or coaching staff have been asked about al-Araibi's situation in an official media event at the tournament.

Australian journalists were briefed by Football Federation Australia not to question the players about the case, though all are said to support his release.

The 26-year-old, who plays semi-professionally for Pascoe Vale FC, is a permanent Australian resident with refugee status who fears persecution in Bahrain where he's spoken of his alleged torture after being arrested in 2012.

FFA says it is continuing to advocate for al-Araibi's freedom and has been in regular contact with the Australian government, FIFA and the AFC, along with the Football Association of Thailand.

Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa has been criticised by al-Araibi. Picture: Getty Images
Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa has been criticised by al-Araibi. Picture: Getty Images

Earlier this month FFA chairman Chris Nikou met with Sheikh Salman in the UAE to discuss the case.

Sheikh Salman, also FIFA vice-president, is the man al-Araibi accused in 2016 of discriminating against Shia Muslims and punishing pro-democracy athletes in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Al-Araibi was detained on arrival in Thailand in late November on honeymoon with his wife following an invalid interpol "red notice" warrant issued by Bahrain, who wants him to return and serve a 10-year prison sentence handed down in absentia after he was accused of vandalising a police station.

He denies the crime he says occurred while he was overseas playing a televised football match.

The AFC has said it is "working with FIFA and other stakeholders" on the matter.

But in an open letter to Sheikh Salman in December, former Socceroos captain Craig Foster labelled the AFC's response to al-Araibi's situation "grossly inadequate".

Craig Foster talks to journalists after visiting Hakeem al-Araibi earlier this week. Picture: AP
Craig Foster talks to journalists after visiting Hakeem al-Araibi earlier this week. Picture: AP

Foster, who visited al-Araibi in jail this week, concluded he seemed to have fallen victim to international football politics ahead of upcoming FIFA and AFC elections.

Sheikh Salman is seeking re-election to the AFC presidency, while Nikou is vying for a place on the AFC executive committee.

Thai ambassador to Australia Nantana Sivakua has called for patience as a court decides whether to deport al-Araibi, whose lawyers argue their client faces torture if sent back to Bahrain.

On Thursday Australian athletes across the sporting landscape sent a collective open letter to prime minister Scott Morrison, calling on him to facilitate al-Araibi's immediate release.



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