At Klong Prem prison, Hakeem heard his voice called over the loudspeaker and was directed outside to where a white prison bus with wire mesh on the windows waited. A guard stopped him near the door, knelt down, and wrapped metal leg irons around each of his ankles. The two rings were connected between his legs by a short, shining chain. Once the guard had locked them into place, he motioned for Hakeem to get on the bus with the other detainees. Hakeem climbed awkwardly up the steps and another guard handed him a piece of paper with English writing scrawled on it. The note informed him that he would be the last person to get off the bus when it arrived at the courthouse, and he was to sit and wait until called by one of the guards to move.
Hakeem felt a rush of hope. He thought it might mean that there was a lot of media waiting there, and hoped that was why he was being treated differently to the other detainees.
The bus trip lasted a lifetime. He remembers: “It finally stopped and I could see all the media waiting outside for me. There were so many and I was so desperate to say anything I could to them about my case. I was like an animal with these shackles around my feet, but I didn’t commit any crime, not in Thailand and not anywhere.
“When they told me it was my turn to get off, I felt sick and wanted to vomit. I walked out and there were so many people, I felt like I was on show in a zoo. My mind was racing. I could see faces that I knew from Fifa, but I couldn’t remember their names. It was all a big loud blur. And then I heard one voice above the others. It was Craig. He was yelling out to me that Australia supported me and that I must be strong. I was very excited to see him. I saw him taking a photo and told him to send a message to my wife that I will be strong.”
What is he, a mass murderer?
When we arrived at the court, journalists and camera crews were already milling about. They had started to set up cameras around an entrance underneath the building, where we were told that vehicles typically drop prisoners off.
“Evan [Evan Jones, of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network], find out where he arrives, quickly, so we can set up,” I said. It was furnace hot. I felt like we were in the bowels of hell, with bars everywhere, guards all over the place and crews starting to jostle for position underneath the building. “We need to know whether we can get into court as well, mate. See what you can do.”
The authorities had set up rows of yellow metal barriers, marking out a short path from where the vehicle transporting Hakeem would stop and where he would be brought to the entrance gate. Francis and I got in place, then changed, and changed again. An opening right near the entrance into the holding cells opened up, and we pounced. “Quick, Fran, let’s go, hurry!,” I said.
The crowd started to grow quickly around us as the minutes ticked by. A crew was starting to set up behind us and I could see it coming, working in television. “Would you mind if I get this camera in here, next to you?” “Yes, I would, not happening, sorry. Fran, you’re here. If you move an inch I’m going to rip your head off.” He chuckled, nervously. This was our spot and I’d be carried out in cuffs before anyone was getting anywhere near it. We had a perfect view down the tunnel where the van would pull up, could see the entire walk, and into the cells to our right.
I was sweating buckets and on edge like never before. This was the most grave, worrying circumstance I had even been a party to. Was this kid really going to turn up in shackles and barefoot like a scene from centuries ago? Media crews wanted comments and interviews and we obliged to get the message out about this inhumane injustice, all the time guarding our position with our lives.
News came that the bus was close. Tension rose, guards snapped to attention, cameras were turned on, necks craned. People pushing forward from behind, we stood our ground. The detainees came off one by one and filed past us into the building. “Where is he, can you see him, Fran? There he is!” Fran started filming. I hit live on Twitter, praying that it worked as all hell broke loose.
Like the others, Hakeem was dressed in a prison-issue light pink shirt and maroon shorts that came down to his knees. His ankles and the shackles on them were completely exposed for all to see, his feet bare on the concrete floor. I remember thinking how dazed and vulnerable he looked, in contrast to the severity of the officials who surrounded him in their pressed military uniforms and polished shoes. All the other prisoners had walked alone, but they surrounded Hakeem with five guards. What is he, a mass murderer? It was barbaric!
When he walked towards where we were standing, I could feel my heart pumping, emotion erupting everywhere. I was trying to capture the whole thing live, but had no idea whether it was on, or if I was holding it steady enough. People were yelling over each other, trying to get him to turn for their cameras and Hakeem yelled to them as he walked.
When he was just a few metres away I started shouting to him as loudly as I could, “Your wife sends her love, Hakeem! Australia is with you. Stay strong, Hakeem, we’re with you!” He walked past towards the metal gate and I just kept shouting, overcome with the horror of it all. “All of Australia is with you! Be strong, buddy!” I’d never been so emotional in my life. Here was a kid, who was innocent, had been in jail for over 70 days and five guards led him in shackles, no shoes. What fucking century was this?
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Once they were inside, the guards locked the gate and absolute chaos ensued. They’d walked out of sight and we didn’t know where they had taken him. Evan was nowhere to be seen and we didn’t know if we could get into the courtroom or what the process might be to even try. Guards, media everywhere. My mind was going through the possibilities. What was to be gained from the overkill of guards around him? Were they trying to demonstrate Thailand’s authority and let us know that they were the ones in charge? What decisions have they already made? Did this mean that they were about to put him on a plane to Bahrain? Or Australia? I found Evan, who was clearly in shock. He’d been the one who’d visited Hakeem the most by now, apart from his lawyer, Nat, and the raw emotion from seeing Hakeem like that was plain on his face.
We raced to the head of the throng and sat down near the front of court, which was soon packed to the rafters. The tension was palpable and we shifted nervously in our seats. I looked to see if anyone had phones out. Some did, so I took a photo and shared it, wanting people around the world to be there with us, to witness this atrocious violation of human rights. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was some kind of show, but to what end?
Meanwhile, the video we had shot live on social media went viral. Within just a few hours, it was viewed over 100,000 times. The world was aghast. Within 24 hours, the #SaveHakeem hashtag skyrocketed to over 500,000 tweets. It was the moment that Hakeem’s case became real for people everywhere, all around the world. Many said they cried, seeing a young man dragged into court in this way. No one could ignore what had happened. It had to have an influence, I thought, this is going to change things. Just how much, we could never have anticipated.
Hakeem was led into court, still shackled and flanked by two policemen. He sat down at the front right of the room next to Nat [Hakeem’s lawyer], an Arabic translator next to him.
The court proceedings lasted for just under an hour. Evan and Phil [Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch] sat on either side of me and tried to interpret what was happening. There were huge piles of paperwork being shuffled around and Hakeem was asked to sign a lot of documents. About halfway through, Hakeem stood up and addressed the audience with a short speech in Arabic. We obviously couldn’t understand exactly what he said, but we could make out “Sheikh Salman” and “Bahrain” repeated several times. Shortly afterwards, the prosecutor stood up and formally opposed bail on the basis that Hakeem was a convicted fugitive and a high flight risk.
I was constantly on to Phil and Evan for information. What’s happening? What are they saying? They relayed that the judge had determined Hakeem would be remanded in Klong Prem for a further 60 days, until 22 April. I was more relieved than anything. The prospect of him being sent to Bahrain was much, much worse. This at least gave us a further window in which to try to stop the case proceeding altogether.
Hakeem was led out. He stopped and turned back to us. “Please tell my wife I love her, please tell her to keep fighting for me,” he said. My chest tightened. “We will, mate, we will, don’t worry, be strong,” I said. With a brief nod, he turned and was led out by the guards.
This is an edited extract from Fighting for Hakeem, by Craig Foster (Hachette, $34.99)