HAKEEM al-Araibi was welcomed back to Melbourne yesterday following a more than two-month-long prison ordeal in Bangkok during which he faced the prospect of deportation to Bahrain, where a 10-year jail sentence awaited him.
The happy ending is obviously good news, but it does not detract from the fact that, as a recognised refugee, he should not have been incarcerated in the first place.
He was taken into custody as soon as he landed in Thailand late last year, on the basis of an Interpol red notice of which he was unaware, and which was anyhow illegitimate in view of his refugee status.
The prison sentence in Bahrain was handed down in absentia, after he had managed to escape the Gulf kingdom, after being interrogated and tortured in the wake of the 2011 pro-democratic upsurge that was crushed with Saudi and Emirati assistance. The specific charge against him was vandalism, allegedly committed while he was taking part in a televised football match.
Al Araibi should not have been incarcerated in the first place.
The Interpol rapidly rescinded its notice, but by then Bahrain’s extradition request was already in play, and just last week al-Araibi was brought in shackles to a Thai court, where he was informed that he could remain in prison for months while the legal system determined his fate. In the meantime, though, a formidable international campaign demanding his freedom had been mounted, with the former captain of Australia’s national football team, Craig Foster, taking a leading role.
Al-Araibi’s detention was a rare matter on which Australians right across the political spectrum were united, and the conservative government — by no means friendly towards refugees, as evidenced by its determination to deny those incarcerated on nearby islands the right to travel to the mainland even when they are in dire need of medical or psychiatric treatment — subtly deployed its diplomatic clout.
Thailand suggested it did not wish to jeopardise its good relations with either Australia or Bahrain, and that the latter two should sort the matter out between themselves. What might have happened on that front is unclear, but Bahrain unexpectedly withdrew its extradition demand a day after the Thai foreign minister held talks with the Gulf state’s crown prince.
It turned out well in the end, even though it took the Thai authorities much longer to sort out the complications than in the case of Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi teenager who pluckily escaped her suffocating circumstances, but was held up at Bangkok airport during a layover on her way to Australia. For a while it appeared that the Thai authorities would bundle her back to a nation where dire consequences awaited her, not least on account of apostasy, but better sense prevailed and she was able to make her way to Canada, which, to its credit, was rather less reluctant to offer her refuge than Australia, her first choice.
The endgame in the al-Araibi saga, meanwhile, played out with a much bigger political drama as its backdrop. Thai politics were thrown into disarray late last week when the king’s older sister, Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi, plunged into the fray ahead of next month’s long-delayed elections by putting herself forward as a prime ministerial candidate.
Thai Raksa Chat, the party she sought to represent, is one of two associated closely with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was dislodged by a military coup in 2006. He subsequently put his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, up for the post. The ploy proved successful — until another military coup in 2014, led by the present prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The princess’s candidacy would have upended the status quo by sharply diminishing Prayuth’s hopes of becoming an elected head of government. The 67-year-old Ubolratana had rescinded her royal prerogatives after marrying an American while studying in the US, but returned to Thailand some years after her divorce, starred in films and TV shows, travelled the nation as an advocate against drugs, and claimed to be a commoner in her quest for political ascendancy.
It appears she hadn’t cleared her ambitions with her brother, though, who rapidly put the kibosh on her candidacy, declaring it would be inappropriate for a member of the supposedly neutral royal family to enter politics.
It would indeed have been extraordinary for a supposedly constitutional monarchy to face a situation where the monarch’s sister was prime minister, despite the latter claiming to be a commoner. On the other hand, every military coup — at least a dozen in the past century — has effectively enjoyed the imprimatur of royal approval. And it obviously helps if lèse-majesté laws can be deployed to shut down various forms of dissent, as has been the norm in recent years.
Anyhow, Ubolratana rapidly withdrew her candidacy and, for good measure, was officially disqualified this week. Thaksin’s presumed masterstroke has spectacularly backfired, but Thailand’s prospects as a sporadic democracy remain supremely uncertain.
Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2019