By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A refugee footballer who fled Bahrain and was held in a Thai prison for months has condemned Australia’s support for the re-election of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa.
Australia’s players union also denounced the decision to back Sheikh Salman, who was criticised for his inaction during al-Araibi’s detention after he was arrested and imprisoned due to an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) on Monday issued a statement confirming it had agreed to back Bahraini Sheikh Salman in the April 6 election along with the 11 Southeast Asian countries who also make up the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF).
Al-Araibi, who sought asylum in Australia after a Bahrain court sentenced him in absentia to 10 years’ jail for vandalism, was released from a Bangkok prison last month under the weight of huge international pressure. He is now an Australian citizen.
“I was overwhelmed by the support I had from the Australian and Asian football communities who worked so hard to free me from unjust detention in Thailand,” al-Araibi said in a joint statement issued by rights groups Amnesty International Australia and Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.
“Today I am shocked and disappointed that the FFA has decided to continue to support a person who oversaw my detention and torture in Bahrain.
“How can he be a ‘fit and proper’ leader for football in our region?”
Al-Araibi has said he was detained and tortured by Bahrain authorities during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
‘UNITY OF PURPOSE’
Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) said its executive had noted FFA’s position with “deep concern”.
“FFA’s support – without consulting with key members of the FFA Congress – is difficult to understand given the unity of purpose the Australian football family recently displayed to help secure the freedom of Hakeem Al-Araibi,” PFA Chief Executive John Didulica said in a statement.
“The inability of the incumbent to protect and promote the human rights of one of the game’s players in line with his constitutional obligations demonstrates a breath-taking failure as the continent’s highest office holder and a repudiation and abrogation of the office of President.”
The FFA was not able to provide immediate comment.
The AFC waited two months after al-Araibi’s detention in Bangkok to issue its first public statement, saying Sheikh Salman was not responsible for the case and that the Asian governing body was working with FIFA to try to resolve it.
Al-Araibi has long denied he was involved in vandalism in Bahrain and has been a vocal critic of Sheikh Salman’s leadership.
The PFA wrote to FIFA last week to ask how Sheikh Salman and other candidates in the AFC presidential race had passed the global governing body’s “eligibility” checks but said they had not received any response.
The PFA also complained that it had not been consulted by the FFA’s executive board over the governing body’s support for the Sheikh.
“We await FIFA and/or FFA to urgently provide the basis upon which the incumbent satisfied the eligibility criteria notwithstanding the fundamental concerns raised by the PFA over his ongoing tenure during the period of Hakeem’s detention,” the PFA said.
On Monday, former Socceroo Craig Foster, who led the campaign to have al-Araibi freed from detention, described Australia’s support for Sheikh Salman as “sickening”.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)