In the 50 days since Hakeem al-Araibi has been held in a Bangkok jail, global events for Olympic sports have continued. The Hockey World Cup and the World Swimming Championships were held and the Handball World Championships, football’s Asian Cup and tennis grand slam the Australian Open have begun. The Winter X Games and Super Bowl will also be under way soon.
Yet one of our fellow Australian athletes, Hakeem al-Araibi, a former international footballer, remains in jail, awaiting the worst fate of any asylum seeker or refugee: extradition back to the country that persecuted him, the country he fled in fear for his life.
At first glance, I am just like Al-Araibi. I am an international athlete. An immigrant to Australia. An activist. I speak and write about bad governance in sport, human rights violations and injustice in the world of sport and beyond. The difference is that I am free to speak out, whereas Al-Araibi has been tortured for doing the same. Even today, as I continue to write and speak out against corruption at the highest levels of world sport, Al-Araibi faces extradition to Bahrain where he risks torture for trying to realise those same freedoms.
Will the Olympic movement allow a fellow athlete to languish in jail, or worse be sent back to his country of birth to be tortured? Or will the International Olympic Committee (IOC), its member sporting federations, countries and its Olympians act now to ensure that the Olympic values are upheld?
The complexity of Al-Araibi’s position involves not just Asian Football Confederation president, Fifa vice-president, and member of the ruling Bahraini royal family, Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, a man who wants to be Fifa president, but the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and major television rights and deals for Fifa. Over the past three years, Fifa has taken serious steps to improve its human rights policies and practices. But Olympic membership is a privilege that can and should be withdrawn when violations of essential human rights and the Olympic charter occur. Fifa’s test of its human rights policy is upon us, but so too is that of the Olympic movement.
While Fifa and the football family have the first responsibility to seek to have the Thai authorities free Al-Araibi, the IOC has claimed to be a “voice for athletes” and yet has been silent in this egregious case. The IOC controls the Olympic movement, in which Fifa and all of world football play a part – from Olympians to grassroots players. But the system of international federations, regional bodies, all of it has bred corruption and bad governance for decades because it all remains separate and apart from the rest of society, choosing to apply the rules of “sport governance” instead of the rule of law.
Meanwhile, athletes are finding their voices, speaking out increasingly to say they don’t want to be party to human rights abuses when they play.
The Olympic movement must stand up in support of Al-Araibi knowing it is backed by international law. Al-Araibi’s arrest was unlawful under Australian and international law and Australia’s foreign minster, Marise Payne, issued a strong statement calling for his return to Australia. Football Federation Australia (FFA) has also made public its support.
The IOC would be well advised to do the same and apply any leverage it has to support Al-Araibi – not only because is it the right thing to do, but because they have an obligation to do so under the Olympic charter, which calls upon everyone in the Olympic movement to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”.
The freedoms I enjoy – swimming, travelling freely, the act of writing this article – are things I do not take for granted. I will not simply watch from the sidelines as a fellow athlete, a fellow Australian immigrant, a fellow activist, is denied the rights and freedoms I enjoy every day.
As an Olympian, a human rights and immigration lawyer, I take my responsibility to uphold the law and the Olympic values seriously and I have a clear duty to stand up for Al-Araibi and ensure my fellow Olympians do the same.
Standing up to Gulf repression is not easy, but the IOC did it in 2012 when leaders told Qatar and Saudi Arabia they had to send women to the London Olympics if they wanted to compete.
In the same way Olympic athletes must play by the rules, it is time for the IOC to step up and remind Fifa of its obligations under the Olympic charter and as a member of the Olympic movement.
Nikki Dryden is a human rights and immigration lawyer based in Sydney and a two-time Olympic swimmer. She competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics and was a medallist in the 1994 Commonwealth Games.