MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Launching his campaign to lead Asian football, Bahrain's Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa told The Associated Press on Tuesday that allegations of footballers in the Gulf nation being detained and tortured during anti-government protests is a matter for politicians.
Sheik Salman, who heads the Bahrain Football Association and is bidding to become Asian Football Confederation president, distanced his organization from events during the Arab Spring-inspired uprising. Up to 60 people have died and thousands — including a number of professional footballers — have been detained. Some players from the national team claim they were tortured.
"Is it under my responsibility as an FA? Have they been treated ill because of their football reasons?" asked Sheik Salman, a member of Bahrain's ruling family. "We have to focus on the responsibility of the FA. My responsibility is to protect this family from any wrongdoing inside and outside which is related to football matters. Political motivation is something different."
Sheik Salman dismissed any suggestion that the FA should apologize for the alleged mistreatment and insisted he did not expect allegations of rights abuses to hurt his chances in the AFC election on May 2.
"I think they (voters) are mature enough to know what is right and what is wrong and I believe they will take the right decision," he said.
Sheik Salman faces Yousuf al-Serkal of the United Arab Emirates, Worawi Makudi of Thailand and Hafez Al Medlej of Saudi Arabia are bidding to replace scandal-tainted Mohammed bin Hammam.
Bin Hammam, who became AFC president in 2002, was found guilty of vote-buying during his challenge against FIFA President Sepp Blatter in 2011 and the FIFA ethics committee suspended him from all football activity for life. The Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned that ban last July, but bin Hammam remained under provisional bans by both FIFA and AFC as investigations continued into allegations of financial irregularities during his tenure. He was again banned for life by FIFA in December.
In May 2009, Sheik Salman challenged bin Hammam for his seat on FIFA's Executive Committee, only to lose a bitter election by two votes.
"People have a choice to leave matters as they are and choose a candidate from the existing administration or they can choose a change that I can bring to the whole continent," Sheik Salman said. "We want to have people who are ambitious, who want that change, who want to introduce financial reports in a transparent way. No matter how small or big you are you will be treated the same way."
If elected, Sheik Salman said he would act on an audit completed last year and which accused bin Hammam of receiving millions of dollars from individuals linked to AFC contracts and spending tens of thousands on items such as a honeymoon, dental work, haircuts and cash payments for his family. Payments are alleged to have been made to Asian, African and Caribbean soccer officials.
"If there the wrongdoing in the past, it has to be corrected," he said. "If I succeed on second of May, we need to keep our (member associations) and FIFA aware of all the wrongdoing in the past and how we can correct things. The most important thing is to have Asia united again."
He has also promised greater financial transparency and a crackdown on match fixing, and also wants to improve football at the grassroots level and distribute AFC funding more fairly than in the past.
"We want a system that is fair, not a distribution system that depends on who you know," he said.