1 May 2017

Sheikh Ahmad’s resignation puts pressure on FIFA & IOC

The international federation of football associations (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) face further credibility issues, after Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, a member of the FIFA Council, was forced to resign his football roles after being linked to corruption charges. Sheikh Ahmad is also President of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC), and two other OCA officials are alleged to be involved.

Sheikh Ahmad resigned all his positions in football after US Department of Justice (DoJ) court documents identified him as being involved in the Richard K. Lai bribery case. Sheikh Ahmad was a member of the Executive Committee of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and as his IOC profile reveals, he has held numerous administrative posts in sport, including being a member of the IOC Executive Committee in 1999. He is also a member of Kuwait’s ruling family.

DoJ documents connected to charges against Lai, who pleaded guilty to accepting bribes on Friday, identified Sheikh Ahmad as one of two AFC officials allegedly involved in offering Lai bribes. The document (PDF below) did not name Lai’s co-conspirators, but described ‘co-conspirator #2’ as ‘a high-ranking official of FIFA, the Kuwait Football Association (“KFA”), and the Olympic Council of Asia (“OCA”)’. That could only be Sheikh Ahmad.

The DoJ documents allege that in 2009, ‘co-conspirator #2’ agreed to provide Lai with US$200,000 to hire a manager for Guam’s football team, but the money was paid into a personal account owned by Lai. ‘The defendant Richard Lai never transferred these funds to GFA [Guam Football Association] accounts’, alleges the document. After this, ‘co-conspirator #2 and co-conspirator #3 began using Lai’s assistance in furtherance of their efforts to diminish co-conspirator #1’s power and influence over the AFC and FIFA’, alleges the documents.

‘With regards to alleged illegal payments to Richard Lai, I can only refer to my previous statement and vigorously deny any wrongdoing’, Sheikh Ahmad said in a statement released to Reuters by the OCA on Sunday. ‘I intend to work with all relevant authorities to disprove these for me totally surprising allegations. However, I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC and FIFA Congresses. Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC (Asian Football Confederation), for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions.’

The DoJ argues that the overall aim behind Sheikh Ahmad’s alleged action was to gain control of the AFC. ‘These efforts were ultimately successful as Candidate #1 eventually was elected President of the AFC and a member of the FIFA Executive Committee, and co-conspirator #2 was ultimately elected to the FIFA Executive Committee, and co-conspirator #1 was banned for life from holding positions in organised soccer’, concludes the document.

Link to bin Hammam & AFC President Sheikh Salman

If you haven’t already guessed, co-conspirator #1 is Mohamed bin Hammam, whom FIFA banned for life following his resignation. Candidate #1, which the DoJ describes as ‘the then-President of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA)’, is Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, the AFC President who stood against FIFA President Gianni Infantino during last year’s election.

There have been allegations that Sheikhs Ahmad and Salman have been involved in manipulating sporting elections before. Last year, the IOC decided against investigating a complaint from a FIFA Presidential candidate that Sheikh Ahmad had breached IOC ethics rules by lobbying national associations to vote for Sheikh Salman in last year’s election.

It also appears that Sheikh Ahmad received assistance from the Olympic movement in the alleged plot to gain influence within the AFC and FIFA. The DoJ describes co-conspirator #3 as ‘a high ranking official of the OCA and an official of the KFA [Kuwait Football Association]’ and his assistant, co-conspirator #4, as ‘an employee of the OCA’. Co-conspirator #3 is alleged to have arranged a meeting between Lai and Sheikh Ahmad to discuss bin Hammam’s leadership of the AFC, as well as arranging the transfer of funds to Lai’s personal account, which was dressed as covering the hire of the manager for the Guam national team.

Jail sentence

In December 2015, a six-month jail sentence was issued to Sheikh Ahmad for allegedly disobeying a prosecutor’s gag by discussing a video involving a purported plan to overthrow the Kuwaiti government. The video in question allegedly involved former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah and his Parliamentary speaker, Jassem al-Karafi, who were also accused of corruption.

A tweet from Sheikh Ahmad at the time said that he would ‘not rest until those responsible are brought to justice’. An investigation by Kuwaiti security agencies found that the recordings presented by Sheikh Ahmad as evidence that Sheikh Nasser and al-Karafi were plotting the coup were unauthentic, reported Middle East Eye. This suggested that they had been tampered with, although a Swiss court found otherwise. Sheikh Ahmad later accused the public prosecutor of overlooking evidence. Prosecutors placed a gag order on the case – understood to be the gag order Sheikh Ahmad was accused of breaching.

The OCA is based in Kuwait and following Sheikh Ahmad’s sentence, it is understood it was given until April 2016 to leave the country. ‘From the ISSF perspective, this dispute began when ISSF President Olegario Vazquez Raña prevailed against the Kuwaiti Minister of Sports and Youth, Sheikh Salman Sabah Al-Salem Al-Homud Al-Sabah in the ISSF Presidential election in December 2014’, read an International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) statement announcing an investigation, which added that Sheikh Salman had unsuccessfully appealed the election result at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). ‘Sheikh Salman refused to initiate a change of Kuwaiti state laws to guarantee the autonomy of sport in Kuwait despite intensive attempts by the IOC to convince him to do so […] The ISSF experienced already during Sheikh Salman’s campaign to become ISSF President in 2014 that he showed little sensitivity for a democratic process, the autonomy of sports and ethical behaviour within an election process.’

The statement has since been removed from the ISSF’s internet site. The ISSF has yet to announce the results of its investigation.

The Sheikh Salman referred to above is also the Kuwaiti Minister of Sports and Youth. He also held this position in 2009 when Sheikh Ahmad’s alleged bid to gain influence at the AFC and FIFA took place, and in 2011, when two clubs were relegated by the KFA following the Arab Spring uprising. It was alleged that the President of the KFA at this point – the other Sheikh Salman (Al Khalifa) – had been involved in identifying clubs and athletes that had taken part in protests. He had been appointed to that position by Prince Nasser Bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the son of Bahrain’s king and head of the Bahrain Olympic Committee.

Pat Hickey

Until he was accused of corruption regarding Olympic ticketing and detained in Brazil, Patrick Hickey was President of the European Olympic Committees (EOC). He was also re-elected as Vice President of ANOC in 2014, the organisation that Sheikh Ahmad presides over, although the ANOC site currently lists him as ‘temporarily self-suspended’.

ANOC lent Hickey €410,000 to pay a bond which a Brazilian judge ordered he must pay in order to return to Ireland for medical treatment. ‘The decision was unanimously approved by ANOC president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah and all ANOC vice-presidents via a postal vote on 20 November 2016’, read an ANOC statement provided to The Guardian. ‘The payment was made as a temporary loan so that Patrick Hickey could meet his bail requirements and return to Ireland where he can receive medical treatment for a heart condition. The terms of the temporary loan make it clear that it must be repaid to ANOC in full. For legal reasons all other terms and conditions surrounding this bail payment will remain confidential.’ ANOC has been asked if its money has been returned.

FIFAgate insulation

The IOC has remained insulated from the FIFAgate allegations so far. The fact that a senior executive from the Olympic movement has been forced to resign his positions within football is bound to set alarm bells ringing. As the events above show, it is not the first time that such allegations have been made against Sheikh Ahmad.

Kuwait did not compete at the Rio 2016 Olympics, after the IOC suspended it due to ‘undue political interference’ in sport in October 2015. It will not take part in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, after a number of other international federations – including FIFA – followed the IOC’s suspension. The complicated relationships between Sheikh Ahmad’s formal role as a member of Kuwait’s ruling family and his Presidency of the OCA and ANOC arguably present a conflict of interest.

‘The IOC, in close collaboration with ASOIF, ANOC, the OCA and the International Federations concerned, has done everything possible to resolve the situation amicably and in the interest of the Olympic Movement in Kuwait’, read the IOC’s statement announcing the suspension of Kuwait. ‘Upon the initiative of the IOC, a meeting took place on 12 October 2015 in Lausanne with representatives of the IOC (including ASOIF, ANOC and the OCA), the Government of Kuwait and the Kuwait Olympic Committee. Following this meeting, a deadline of 27 October 2015 was set to resolve the issues at hand or, at least, freeze the application of the conflictive provisions of the sports legislation until a reasonable and mutually acceptable solution could be found. Unfortunately, the deadline expired today with no action having been taken by the Government of Kuwait.’

Shortly after this statement was made, Sheikh Ahmad found himself jailed by the Kuwaiti government. Also, as explained above, questions also arise regarding the relationship between Sheikh Ahmad and Hickey. It could be argued that loaning money to pay for a judicial order amounts to abuse of Olympic funds.

The IOC, OCA and ANOC have yet to comment on the situation, other than Sheikh Ahmad’s resignation statement. It will be telling to see whether the Olympic movement chooses to investigate its links to FIFAgate, or whether it hopes that it will remain insulated from its ever expanding reach.

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