Hakeem al-Araibi arrived in Melbourne on Tuesday, 77 days after he was arrested in Thailand on an Interpol red notice, drawing global condemnation and a campaign to see him freed.
The 25-year-old refugee walked through the gates to cheers and a waiting group of supporters wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his name, as well as a throng of media, friends and supporters.
Al-Araibi, a Bahraini refugee who has lived in Australia for five years, was released from a Thai prison on Monday after 76 days of incarceration. The shock decision by the Thai government and courts to free him brought to an end Bahrain’s attempts to have the dissident and athlete returned to them.
Al-Araibi was swamped by his friends and team-mates before making a short statement.
“It’s amazing to see all of the people here and all of the Australian people and all of the media who supported me,” said Al-Araibi. “And I just wanted to thank the Australian government, the Australian people.”
He stood next to former Socceroo Craig Foster, who spearheaded the campaign to free him.
“I want to thank this man who fight so much for my case,” Al-Araibi said of Foster.
“I thank the media, all the human rights. Thank you. I will be more strong for this country and I will be strong here for Australia. This is my country. I didn’t have citizenship yet, but my country is Australia. I love Australia.”
The crowd erupted into cheers and shouts of “Welcome Home Hakeem”, and “It’s good to have you brother.”
Foster said there was an “amazing coalition” of people around the world who worked to free Al-Araibi.
He thanked prime minister Scott Morrison and foreign affairs minister Marise Payne, thanking Payne in particular for taking the issue personally and working “incredibly hard”.
“Scott in recent times stepped up, particularly after so many athletes and Olympians asked him to take the issue personally, and he did so, and I thank him,” said Foster. “It made a significant difference.”
Foster said they wouldn’t stop until people were held accountable for the past three months.
“Nevertheless, above all else, this is about a young man getting back to his wife,” he said.
Lou Tona, chairman of Al-Araibi’s Melbourne football club, Pascoe Vale, told the Guardian he was overwhelmed, and he wanted Al-Araibi to know “Australia was right behind him”.
Tona said Al-Araibi was a quiet kid and unassuming personality but a lion on the field.
“When I walk in the change room I cop a lot of banter from all the boys. But he doesn’t give me any,” he said. “If he started now I’d forgive him for it.”
The club’s first game is on Thursday. Team-mate Davey Van’t Schip said he couldn’t wait to see Al-Araibi.
“I’m going to give him a hug,” Van’t Schip said.
Tona said Foster was a fearless leader “who kept us going”.
Tim O’Connor from Amnesty International told Guardian Australia he was “feeling jubilant” and it was a day of celebration.
“It’s so exciting to be here today to see Hakeem get off that plane,” O’Connor said. “He committed no crime – he was an innocent man caught up in a much bigger political game.”
Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said: “Two moments captured the world’s attention this month. The photo of footballer Hakeem al-Araibi shackled and barefoot, and the moment of Hakeem breaking the chains and reunited with his beloved wife, friends and the football community in Melbourne.”
His arrival in his home city came as family has thanked the international community for securing his release from potential extradition to Bahrain, a country he fled after he was imprisoned and tortured.
In a statement provided to Guardian Australia, Al-Araibi’s family said they were “heartened” to see pictures of his release, but urged the world not to turn away from those still unjustly detained in Bahrain.
“We are heartened seeing our released son Hakeem Al-Araibi’s picture; embracing freedom after more than two months,” his mother and siblings said.
“Nonetheless, this indescribable joy would be greater when Hakeem’s detained acquaintances and compatriots are freed from Bahrain’s prisons of persecution.”
Al-Araibi’s wife, who has not wanted to be identified throughout the ordeal, told Guardian Australia she was thankful for everyone’s support. Before his departure from Thailand she said she wanted him to get on the plane before she could believe he was being released.
Al-Araibi was arrested on 27 November on an erroneously issued Interpol red notice, which should never have been granted to Bahrain under clear Interpol policies designed to protect refugees from refoulement.
While Thailand has said Bahrain withdrew its extradition request, allowing it to petition the court for Al-Araibi’s freedom, the Gulf state has maintained his guilt as well as its “right to pursue all necessary legal actions against Mr Al-Araibi”.
Al-Araibi was sentenced to 10 years in jail in absentia for what has become a widely discredited vandalism conviction. The young footballer has said he was playing in a televised match around the time of the crime and could never have been there. He believes he was targeted amid a crackdown on athletes participating in pro-democracy protests.
“As soon as our son reach (sic) Australia, we call upon the Bahraini authorities, which unlawfully treats Hakeem as a criminal despite his innocence, to drop all the fabricated charges, repeal the court’s unfair verdict, acquit and apologise for the physical and psychological repercussion it inflicted upon Hakeem,” his family said.
Many dissidents remain imprisoned in Bahrain, where allegations and instances of mistreatment and torture have been repeatedly documented by human rights groups, and Al-Araibi’s family said they were “bitterly waiting for the world’s attention”.
“Those are imprisoned merely in retaliation for their pro-democracy demands. Their parents as well aspire to reunite with them soon,” they said.
“The outstanding fight for Hakeem’s case has averred that the continuous and effective efforts would find their way towards success.
“We and Hakeem thank you again for your effort and free stance and ask you not to forget the oppressed people and prisoners of Bahrain.”
The family thanked activists, media and human rights groups across the three nations involved and around the world who had “incredibly, and in all possible means, supported us and Hakeem to achieve this release”.
“Our special thanks to the Australian football community and Hakeem’s colleagues; particularly to the former Australia international footballer Craig Foster, who has honestly put nothing before this appalling case and has never lost any chance but to save Hakeem.
“Thank you from the bottom of our hearts, O great warrior.”