Asia football chief Sheikh Salman urged to resign as AFC admits ‘conflict of interest’ over jailed refugee player

  • Asian body releases first official statement on Bahraini’s arrest by Thai officials in November
  • Statement slammed because it failed to condemn his detention nor call for his release
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 January, 2019, 11:59am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 January, 2019, 10:03pm

Activists have called for Asia’s football chief, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, to resign after the body admitted for the first time that the Bahraini royal family member has a “conflict of interest” in regard to his jailed compatriot, Hakeem al-Araibi.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) issued a press release on Saturday – its first official statement on Araibi 60 days after he was arrested by Thai authorities – saying it was working with Fifa, the Thai FA and Australia’s governing body on the issue.

However, the statement was slammed because it failed to call for Al-Araibi’s release, nor did it condemn his detention, especially after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a statement on the same day, describing the player’s detention as “worrying” and calling for his return to Australia – where he was granted asylum in 2014 after he fled Bahrain.

“The Asian Football Confederation continues to work with Fifa, the global governing body, on the matter of the detention of Hakeem al-Araibi in Thailand to find a solution,” the statement said.

“AFC senior vice-president Praful Patel and the AFC administration are in contact with Fifa and coordinating the AFC’s work with not only Fifa, but other stakeholders such as the Bahrain Football Association, Football Federation of Australia and Football Federation of Thailand.

“Mr Patel was asked 18 months ago by the AFC executive committee to handle matters involving the AFC’s west zone to ensure there were no accusations of a conflict of interest involving AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa.”

In 2016, Al-Araibi publicly criticised Salman, accusing him of involvement in the crackdown of Bahraini athletes during the Arab spring. He travelled to Bangkok on November 27 for his honeymoon with assurances from Australia that he was safe.

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However, upon arrival at the airport, he was detained by Thai authorities on an erroneous red notice from Interpol and has been held at Bangkok Remand Prison since. The notice calls for Al-Araibi to be extradited to Bahrain, where he fears for his life.

Brendan Schwab, executive director of athlete support group World Players Association, said admitting a conflict of interest means Salman is no longer in a position to lead the AFC.

He also said, with Salman officially not involved in the matter, the AFC can actively pursue his release.

“60 days too late,” tweeted Schwab, referring to the time it took for AFC to respond to Al-Araibi’s arrest. “But with Sheikh Salman out of the way (for now), [it is] essential @theafcdotcom helps #SaveHakeem. The sheikh’s admitted conflict of interest surely disqualifies him from office. Football leaders are now legally obliged to champion human rights, not turn a blind eye.”

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Lawyer, activist and former Australia international Francis Awartefe dismissed Salman’s excuse, while Andrew Orsatti, of global players’ union FIFPro said the AFC president was trying to wash his hands of Araibi.

Said Awartefe: “It’s not a ‘conflict of interest’ as posited by @theafcdotcom for AFC President, Sheikh Salman, to uphold & respect human rights. It’s a duty of his office – as it is for every office-holder in football. In which case, Sheikh Salman’s position is untenable.”

Former Australian captain Craig Foster has been the face of the “Save Hakeem” campaign, with the support of an army of supporters and activists.

Foster recently visited Al-Araibi in Bangkok and on Saturday landed in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he was to meet with IOC and Fifa officials.

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The IOC, meanwhile, issued a statement calling for Araibi to be sent back to Australia.

“The IOC president [Thomas Bach] has personally discussed this worrying situation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Filippo Grandi,” the IOC statement said. “The High Commissioner also expressed that UNHCR is very concerned about this case since Mr Al-Araibi is a recognised refugee and he should be allowed to return to Australia. We will continue to monitor this case closely.”

The campaign comes at an embarrassing time for Salman, who is also a Fifa vice-president as he presides over AFC’s top tournament, the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.

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