News 25 February 2016

Renewed allegations put pressure on Sheikh Salman

FIFA Presidential election favorite, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, faces renewed allegations of human rights violations and corruption. An investigative report by WDR Inside Sport resurfaces troubling allegations that the Bahraini royal and current Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President assisted in the detention and torture of dissident athletes. Meanwhile, WDR Inside Sport alleges that Sheikh Salman (pictured) bought votes in his 2009 bid to be elected to FIFA’s Executive Committee, claims that appear to be backed by a petition read in the UK House of Commons by MP Damian Collins.

Human rights allegations

WDR Inside Sport highlights allegations by a number of human rights organisations, including the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD). BIRD alleges that Sheikh Salman was complicit in programs to detain and torture dissidents in the wake of the 2011 democracy protests in Bahrain. “He led a committee whose responsibility it was to identify those persons who had taken part in the protests against the government and then to take action against these people,” BIRD activist Sayed Alwadaei states in the report. “We have evidence of it.”

The German report (video above) also profiles a former Bahraini national team player who fled the country after allegedly experiencing torture and abuse in Bahrain. According to the player, Hakeem Al Oraibi (who currently plays in Australia’s second division), Sheikh Salman (the head of the Bahraini FA at the time) ignored his family’s pleas for help when the Bahraini government detained him. According to Oraibi, guards hit his legs repeatedly, threatening to end his football career.

Sheikh Salman has consistently denied the allegations, and has gone on record stating that he had no involvement in the violent crackdown and denied any instances of torture. “I don’t think that there are players who were tortured, I talk to them, I have a very close relationship with them”, he stated.

Responding to questions by WDR Inside Sport about his involvement in the committee charged with investigating athletes’ involvement in the protests, Sheikh Salman’s lawyers stated that the committee never met, and never made any decisions. However, WDR Inside Sport reports that the state-run Bahraini News Agency had published reports about punishments of athletes “in agreement with the decisions of the [c]ommittee” under Salman’s leadership.

Corruption allegations

Salman is currently favourite to take over as FIFA President after brokering a deal which he says will ensure the AFC and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) vote for him. As the table below illustrates, the two bodies make up 100 of the 209 national associations who will vote for the FIFA President tomorrow. However, it is alleged that Salman may have engaged in ‘old’ FIFA politics, which have led to the arrest of so many football executives during the past two years.

It appears that Salman may have financed his 2009 attempt to be elected to the FIFA Executive Committee with money from FIFA GOAL projects, which are designed to construct football facilities and infrastructure in developing countries. “There is a debate in relation to Sheikh Salman that in the past – for example in 2009 when he ran for the FIFA Executive – that he not only used money from the Bahrain football association, but they also used FIFA GOAL money as well”, UK MP Damian Collins told the Sports Integrity Initiative.

WDR’s Inside Sport adds a new string to Collins’ bow. It says it has a copy of a complaint to FIFA that Salman bought votes in the same election “with a great deal of money”. Salman eventually missed out on election to the FIFA Executive Committee by just two votes.

Collins has since taken his allegations to the UK Parliament. He highlighted a ‘petition by a UK resident’ that the Football Association (FA) should not support Salman if he is elected, due to the numerous allegations against him. He told the House of Commons that the petition argues that: “In a leaked letter received by the Al Bilad newspaper it was claimed that Sheikh Salman had spent upwards of 855,000 dinars (£1.6 million GBP) on his campaign and that some of this money had come from FIFA-financed football development projects, in particular Goal 1 (intended to help fund a new Bahrain FA headquarters), and Goal 3 (intended to provide facilities for the development of youth and women’s football); that after FIFA requested urgent information from the Bahrain FA regarding the misappropriation of funds Sheikh Salman did not comment until early September 2009, at which point he denied those claims, however the Bahrain FA did not dispute the contents of the leaked documents; also notes that prior to Sheikh Salman’s election to the Presidency of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in May 2013, details of the flights that the Football Federation of Kyrgyz Republic’s (FFKR) delegation would be taking to and from Kuala Lumpur for the AFC vote were emailed to the private account of the ‘IT manager’ at the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), of which a close associate of Sheikh Salman was Head; that three days before the vote, requests for support for 53 projects for Kyrgyzstan football to the tune of millions of pounds were discussed although there seems to be no legitimate reason for the FFKR, part of FIFA, to be seeking funding from the OCA, part of the International Olympic Committee; notes that the FFKR approached the OCA again after the AFC election asking when they would receive payment for their projects, which gives strong grounds to suspect that the FFKR voted for Sheikh Salman because they believed they would receive significant financial support from the OCA (including that OCA officials appear to have met officials from the FFKR during the AFC vote in 2013); and believes that this is a fresh ‘cash for votes’ scandal which needs urgent investigation.”

WDR Inside Sport also alleges that during his tenure as President, the AFC entered into questionable contracts with sports marketing and media company World Sport Group (WSG). Similar contracts entered into by CONCACAF and CONMEBOL led the US Department of Justice (DoJ) to announce its second round of indictments against executives in December last year.

The DoJ’s announcement of the December indictments was planned to coincide with FIFA’s announcement of its reform process, which will be debated at the Extraordinary Congress in Zurich tomorrow. The first round of indictments, announced on 27 May, were planned to coincide with a FIFA Presidential election. We will find out tomorrow if the DoJ has any further surprise indictments in store.

Culture of corruption?

While these allegations are troubling if true, they are by no means new. The allegations relating to the Executive Committee issue occurred in 2009. Reports of his involvement with the crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrations and have existed since 2011. Allegations of his human rights violations resurfaced when he won the AFC Presidential election in 2011. Also, questions about dealings between the AFC and WSG have been floating around since before Sheikh Salman took the AFC reigns.

The underlying issue that arises from the WDR Inside Sport report is not whether these allegations are true, but how Sheikh Salman has continued his upward momentum through the ranks of world football and remained the clear front-runner in the current FIFA Presidential race, without them being fully investigated. The persistence of these allegations appears to have had little effect on the Bahraini royal’s extremely impressive career, or his high popularity among the FIFA’s national association electorate. This could mean that either the allegations are entirely untrue, or that those voting for football’s next President just don’t care about such issues. If the latter is true, then reforming FIFA may require more than just a new President and a reform process put together by those that are prepared to accept such corruption.

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