Editors note: The original post misstated the allegations against Sheik Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa and failed to include an appropriate response from him. His response is now included.
Five candidates have passed the “integrity checks” carried out by world soccer’s organizing body as it looks to fill the post occupied by outgoing FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Meet one of them, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain.
Sheikh Salman is president of the Asian Football Confederation, and his candidacy has garnered extensive criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy. The criticism stems from his alleged ties to a 2011 crackdown against anti-government protesters that resulted in hundreds of people, including Bahraini soccer players, being imprisoned and tortured.
Specifically, Sheikh Salman is accused of playing a significant role in identifying and punishing “more than 150 members of the sporting community who had peacefully protested,” according to a statement issued in Washington by Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.
“Sheikh Salman played a key role in Bahrain’s retaliation against athlete-protesters,” the statement said. “Throughout the government crackdown, he allegedly examined photographs of the protesters, identifying Bahraini athletes for the security forces. The authorities then used this information to arrest, detain and publicly defame all who were named, of which many credibly allege that they were tortured during detention.”
Sheikh Salman has publicly denied claims that he was complicit in the mistreatment of Bahraini anti-government protesters. A statement issued by his representatives Friday reiterated his denial, and said human rights groups’ allegations that he headed a special commission aimed at identifying athlete-protesters were false.
The statement said: “The allegations are entirely false and categorically denied by Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa. While it was proposed that Sheikh Salman lead a fact finding committee in relation to the events of 2011, that committee was never formally established and never conducted any business whatsoever. For the record, and in light of the recycling of historic allegations in the media, Sheikh Salman had absolutely no involvement in the identification, investigation, prosecution or mistreatment of any individuals as has been alleged.”
Sheikh Salman’s representatives also pointed to a report by the Bahrain Independent Commision of Inquiry, which included no suggestion that he or any organization led by him played a role in the 2011 events in the country.
In a statement sent to The Washington Post, FIFA spokesman David Noemi said the soccer body’s committee conducting background checks on the candidates did assess the allegations against Sheikh Salman and did not find evidence of “any personal and direct involvement” by him into these alleged activities.
“Therefore, the Ad-hoc Electoral Committee concluded that there were no grounds to disqualify his candidacy,” Noemi said.
As it stands now, Sheikh Salman is one of the leading candidates to replace Blatter, according to the Guardian, because he’s relatively new to FIFA. Many see Sheikh Salman, who was elected to the executive committee in 2013, as one of the few candidates not tainted by the bribery and corruption scandals faced by the FIFA leadership. This alarms some critics.
“If a member of Bahrain’s royal family is the cleanest pair of hands that FIFA can find, then the organization would appear to have the shallowest and least ethical pool of talent in world sport,” Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas McGeehan told the Guardian last month.
Other candidates approved by FIFA to run in the Feb. 26 election include: Prince Ali Al Hussein, who ran and lost against Blatter in May; Jerome Champagne, who served on FIFA’s executive committee from 1999 to 2010; Gianni Infantino, a close associate of former front runner Michel Platini, the UEFA chief whose candidacy has been suspended due to an ongoing investigation into allegations that he accepted an unlawful payment; and Tokyo Sexwale, the current head of FIFA’s committee overseeing the development of soccer in Palestine.
A sixth candidate whom FIFA ran its integrity checks on, Musa Bility, the head of the Liberian soccer association, failed to pass for undisclosed reasons.
“For reasons of protection of personality rights, the Ad-hoc Electoral Committee … will not comment publicly on the specifics of its decision,” FIFA said in a statement.