Today, as the FIFA Council meets in Miami, human rights and sport governance and transparency organisations globally should question how the Bahraini Vice President has been deemed eligible to stand for election to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Presidency for a third term.
If we’re to maintain any confidence in the integrity of FIFA and the AFC, it’s vital that these questions about Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa are dealt with publicly, and finally.
The AFC published a notice on March 1 indicating that three candidates, including Salman, had passed eligibility checks by both the AFC Electoral Committee and FIFA Review Committee to stand for election as both President of the AFC and Vice President of FIFA.
That Salman has been deemed by FIFA as a reasonable prospect for a continuing position of leadership in the game is a challenge to organisations tasked with upholding standards of sport governance and human rights, such as the global players’ body, FIFPro, and the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, Geneva.
Three matters require independent investigation.
Firstly, the 2011-12 crackdown on athletes by the Government of Bahrain, in which more than 150 athletes across a broad range of sports were identified, incarcerated and some, like Hakeem Al-Araibi, allegedly tortured.
In 2012, Bahrain’s Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al-Khalifa was prosecuted in the London's High Court over allegations he was involved in the torture of prisoners in the crackdown. These allegations were denied by the Bahrain government who described them as politically motivated; but no further investigation has been made public.
In the intervening years, both Nasser and Salman have risen to prominence in world renowned sports – Salman as head of the AFC and VP of FIFA: and Nasser as the Chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports of Bahrain.
Nasser is also President of the National Olympic Committee of Bahrain, founded Team Merida in 2017 which competes in the UCI World Team cycling series in a joint venture with McLaren and associated with Bahrain’s F1 race, due at the end of this month.
The 2011 Grand Prix was moved from Bahrain in response to protests regarding Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on its citizens, and promptly returned the following year, lending international prestige to the regime.
FIFA and Gianni Infantino were welcomed to Bahrain by Nasser for the May, 2017 FIFA Congress, who proudly trumpeted Bahrain’s vision to be an island that ‘hosts, supports, organises, develops and participated in the global sports movement.’
By this measure, the plan is a great success. But at what cost to sport?
Salman, who as President of the Bahrain Football Association, has confirmed that he was appointed by Nasser to chair the committee of inquiry to identify high profile athletes involved in the peaceful protests in 2011, but denies the committee ever met.
Irrespective, it is an indictment on football that, as head of the local Football Association at the time, Salman at the very least gave no public objection as footballers were allegedly tortured.
What can be more fundamentally important than protecting athletes when in a position of governance?
Inactivity in the face of player abuse disqualifies Salman from standing for election.
Secondly, Salman was named in the FBI case of USA v Lai, 2017 as candidate number 1.
This case investigated allegations of corruption, and specifically examined the support for Salman’s candidacy for the AFC Presidency by Kuwaiti sport officials, who bribed President of the Guam Football Association, Richard Lai, and others in what the FBI described as a ‘scheme to gain control of the AFC and influence FIFA’.
The FBI case ultimately found this scheme was successful. Disciplinary action or criminal charges were taken against many implicated in the scheme, except Salman. Whilst the FBI did not find that Salman knew of or was complicit in the scheme, the findings in this case clearly raise questions regarding the circumstances around Salman’s initial election to the AFC role.
It’s imperative that any involvement, or knowledge of the current AFC President of the scheme is further investigated, and that he stands aside while this occurs.
Thirdly, and more recently, Salman was widely criticised for remaining publicly silent throughout the incarceration of fellow Bahraini, Hakeem Al-Araibi, despite his obligations as AFC President to ensure the welfare of footballers in the region.
Al-Araibi had been critical of Salman’s push for the FIFA Presidency several years earlier.
Responding to criticism over Salman's inaction, the AFC issued a release on January 26 claiming Salman had been recused, supposedly 18 months earlier, from any activities pertaining to West Asia due to potential conflicts of interest. This very admission of a conflict should preclude electoral eligibility, as there can be none for any official when the simple matter of upholding a player’s rights is at stake.
Two days later, on January 28, media reported the formal submission by Bahrain of extradition orders for Hakeem to the Thai court.
On the same day, however, I met with FIFA Secretary-General, Fatma Samoura in Zurich to inform her, among other aspects of the case, that I had been advised the extradition orders had in fact been submitted the preceding Friday, January 25.
The day before the AFC announced Salman had recused himself.
Of extreme concern is any relationship between the eventual submission by Bahrain of the extradition order, and the supposed recusal by the AFC President from the matter.
Al-Araibi's incarceration in Thailand was already of great concern to all footballers within Asia, who may be faced with similar circumstances.
Any inference, therefore, that Salman purposely remained silent during the months Al-Ariabi was behind bars, denying him the benefit of an AFC President advocating for his rights, during the long delays of the extradition process (while Bahrain translated thousands of pages of documents into Thai), is an extremely serious one.
The AFC election is on April 6. Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa has been passed fit by both the AFC and FIFA to stand for office.
Sport needs to know how, and why.
And FIFA, Olympics, F1 and Cycling are complicit until we have answers.