SYDNEY (AP) — A former Bahraini soccer player and refugee became an Australian citizen Wednesday, four weeks after detention in Thailand on an extradition request from his home country raised international concern.
Hakeem al-Araiby told reporters he’s “an Aussie now” and is happy to be safe.
The 25-year-old soccer player fled Bahrain, citing political repression, and had lived under refugee status in Australia for more than a year until he was detained in Bangkok in November at the start of a planned holiday with his wife.
Bahrain wanted him returned to serve a prison sentence for a vandalism conviction he denies, but Thailand withdrew the extradition case last month after sustained pressure from the Australian government and soccer bodies.
He became an Australian citizen along with 200 other people at a ceremony in Melbourne, after passing his citizenship test with a 100 percent mark.
“I’m an Aussie now,” he told reporters.
“I’m very happy to get citizen, I’m very happy to be safe.”
Al-Araiby said he hoped to soon resume playing soccer for his semi-professional Melbourne club, Pascoe Vale. But the defender also has his sights set on gaining a contract in Australia’s nationwide professional competition, the A-League, with hopes of one day representing Australia in international competition.
“I want to focus on soccer for this country,” he said.
Al-Araiby said he was humbled by support from Australians in the campaign which led to his return, and thanked former Australian captain Craig Foster and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who led efforts for his release.
“Across the Australian community, we were concerned for his welfare,” Payne said at the citizenship ceremony. “I was very proud to witness that campaign. It embodied some of the best elements of Australia: looking after one another, mateship, a fair go.”
Foster said he hoped to see al-Araiby one day play for Australia, saying it was “surreal” to think that “not too long ago, he was in prison fatigues sitting behind a perspex window.”
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