Australian supporters cheer refugee Bahraini footballer freed from Thai jail

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Former Socceroo Craig Foster (centre right) is seen with refugee footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi (centre) as he arrives at Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Australia, February 12, 2019. AAP Image/David Crosling via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – A refugee Bahraini footballer, who was held in a Thai prison for more than two months at the Gulf state’s request, arrived in the Australian city of Melbourne from Bangkok on Tuesday, Australian television pool footage showed.

Hakeem Al Araibi, 25, who fled Bahrain in 2014 and received refugee status in Australia, was released from prison on Monday. Authorities in Bahrain accused Araibi of crimes committed during the Arab Spring protests of 2011, charges which he denied.

“Australia is my country. I don’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia … I love Australia,” Araibi said after he disembarked in Melbourne airport from a Thai Airways flight.

Hundreds of supporters clamored to embrace him, TV footage showed. He wore the playing shirt of Pascoe Vale, the semi-professional team he plays for in Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city.

He thanked his supporters, who cheered: “Welcome home Hakeem!”

Araibi was arrested in Bangkok in November while on honeymoon following an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request.

His arrest drew widespread international condemnation. Bahrain, under heavy diplomatic pressure, agreed to drop its bid to have him extradited from Thailand.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait

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