ZURICH — Nothing has rocked international soccer quite like the waves of arrests made across several continents last year as the United States announced bribery and corruption charges against the men running the sport, the world’s biggest and richest.
ZURICH — Nothing has rocked international soccer quite like the waves of arrests made across several continents last year as the United States announced bribery and corruption charges against the men running the sport, the world’s biggest and richest. But as the organization that governs global soccer gathers this week to choose a new president, a leading contender risks stirring up another source of controversy for the sport: human rights.
With the election set to be held here on Friday, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of the ruling family of Bahrain and the president of the governing body for soccer in Asia, might already have the support of a commanding number of voting countries, making him one of the favorites, with Gianni Infantino, to replace Sepp Blatter as president ofFIFA.
Critics have seized on one aspect of Sheikh Salman’s background that remains unclear: They want FIFA to investigate whether he had any connection to the jailing and torture of Bahraini athletes who peacefully protested his family’s rule in 2011 during the Arab Spring.
Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa and Gianni Infantino, seeking to be FIFA's next president, speak at the Extraordinary UEFA Congress ahead of Friday's election. By REUTERS on
February 25, 2016. Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.Watch in Times Video »
When the uprisings spread to Bahrain, the Sunni Muslim ruling family violently repressed the pro-democracy protests, which were led by members of the country’s Shiite majority. The authorities were accused of torturing hundreds of people taken into custody during the crackdown, among them protest leaders but also professionals, like doctors and athletes, who had sympathized with the demonstrators.
Bahrain, a key ally of the United States in the Persian Gulf region, pledged to carry out reforms after the unrest, but since then, most of the country’s leading dissidents have been forced into exile or sent to prisons where,human rights groups say, torture and other abuse are still rampant.
In a statement on Feb. 17, the fifth anniversary of Bahrain’s uprising, the State Department said Bahrain’s government had “made progress” but criticized the detention of leading opposition figures as well as the “limitations on peaceful assembly and political activism and the criminalization of free expression.”
Sheikh Salman has denied allegations that he was connected in any way to human rights violations, but the ruling family’s tactics received increased attention as he climbed the hierarchy of international sport in the past five years, winning a position on FIFA’s governing executive committee in 2013. In that time, some of the athletes in Bahrain who once spoke out against him have recanted.
The allegations against Sheikh Salman and the possibility of his becoming the first new president of FIFA in nearly two decades are discomfiting to some of the organization’s members, who are seeking to project an image of reform in the face of international investigations centered on allegations of financial crimes. Human rights officials, who previously criticized FIFA over the mistreatment of workers building stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, have expressed outrage about Sheikh Salman to both soccer federations and sponsors.
“This is a pivotal moment for FIFA, but every moment has been a pivotal moment for FIFA,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist who has studied the organization and its governance. “They’ve never taken advantage of it. They’ve never pivoted.”Protesters gathered to demonstrate in Manama, Bahrain, in February 2011.
Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
The other prominent contender for FIFA’s presidency is Infantino, of Switzerland. But Sheikh Salman’s ability to gather critical support has signaled that power in global soccer, long concentrated in Europe, might be shifting toward the Middle East. He has won the full support of the top soccer officials in Africa and Asia, FIFA’s two most populous confederations, and this month seemed to win the backing of Russia, which had previously endorsed Mr. Infantino.
At the same time, Sheikh Salman has put forth a more Western image in photographs on his campaign website, appearing more often in suits or jeans than in traditional Bahraini dress. Sheikh Salman, who lives in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, said that, if elected, he would be a “roving president,” spending time in Zurich as necessary but focused on traveling to small countries where soccer has been underdeveloped.
“He’s said he won’t take FIFA out of Switzerland,” Mr. Pielke said. “But let’s see what happens when Swiss prosecutors are knocking on the door. You could imagine any of the candidates pulling up stakes and going to the Middle East.”
A private person about whom few personal details are known, Sheikh Salman declined to be interviewed in person or by phone. He answered some questions by email but refused to speak about his family and referred questions about human rights and the Arab Spring protests to his lawyers, who denied activists’ allegations.
Sheikh Salman played soccer in a youth league in Bahrain in the 1980s, he said, studying history and English literature at the University of Bahrain, after which he joined Bahrain’s national soccer association to work in development.
In 2002, 10 years after graduating from college, he was elected president of the association. The sheikh won his current position three years ago, overseeing the sport throughout Asia and securing a seat on FIFA’s executive committee.A presenter, Fernanda Lima, invited Sheikh Salman, left, to join Sepp Blatter, right, the president of FIFA, during the opening of a FIFA congress in Rio de Janeiro in 2014.
Nelson Almeida/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But even since joining the fold of FIFA’s top leadership, Sheikh Salman has remained a bit of a mystery to some of his colleagues. When in Zurich for FIFA meetings, he chooses not to stay with most of his fellow executive committee members at the Baur au Lac hotel, preferring more privacy.
Sheikh Salman has withdrawn from notable social occasions, several soccer officials said. He did not attend the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro in 2014 or the Club World Cup in Marrakesh, Morocco, that year. (His lawyers noted that the World Cup final coincided with the religious holiday Ramadan and added that Sheikh Salman had other commitments related to his presidency of the Asian Football Confederation that had kept him from attending the club final.)
Jim Boyce, a soccer official from Britain who served on FIFA’s disciplinary committee with Sheikh Salman, called him “open and honest” and said he had never discussed human rights concerns. “It was as if none of it was going on,” Mr. Boyce said.
Sheikh Salman said that if elected, he would first seek to reassure FIFA’s staff in Zurich — several hundred employees with no voice in electing the next president — that he respected their jobs and would not seek to uproot them.
A top priority, he said, would be to separate FIFA’s revenue-generating activities from its management of the game of soccer, carving out separate bodies focused on managing money and developing the sport.
Sheikh Salman said he had not been in communication with Mr. Blatter, who left his position amid scandal last year, after the United Statesunsealed charges in a sweeping corruption case. Mr. Blatter is also under criminal investigation by Switzerland’s attorney general and has been barred from soccer by FIFA. “I respect the legal process that is currently underway,” the sheikh wrote.
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Hakeem al-Oraibi, a former soccer player for Bahrain’s national team, said he felt that Asia had been underrepresented within world soccer but that Sheikh Salman was not the person to advance it and represent the sport globally.
Mr. Oraibi was arrested in November 2012 while walking to a cafe in Bahrain to watch a Real Madrid-Barcelona game. He was accused of vandalizing a police station at a time when he had been playing in a match that had been aired on live television, he said.
Multiple officers beat him while he was in jail, Mr. Oraibi said in a phone interview from Melbourne, Australia, where he sought asylum in 2014. “They blindfolded me,” he said. “They held me really tight, and one started to beat my legs really hard, saying: ‘You will not play soccer again. We will destroy your future.’ ”
Mr. Oraibi said he believed he had been arrested because he was a Shiite Muslim and because of his brother’s political activism in Bahrain. His brother is serving a 10-year prison sentence.
Bahrain’s soccer association, led by Sheikh Salman at the time, did not engage with requests from Mr. Oraibi’s sister and lawyers to confirm his alibi and exonerate him, Mr. Oraibi said. He remained in jail for three months and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison, which he avoided by fleeing Bahrain.
Asked about Mr. Oraibi’s situation, lawyers for Sheikh Salman said the Bahrain Football Association had “provided evidence to assist a number of football players to defend their cases,” adding that Sheikh Salman did not personally receive a request for help from Mr. Oraibi.
Sheikh Salman’s lawyers denied separate allegations made by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy that the sheikh had led a committee that studied pictures of pro-democracy demonstrations and identified athletes who had participated in them; those athletes, activists said, were later detained and tortured.
The sheikh’s lawyers maintained that the committee in question, while having met once, never formally convened and conducted no business.
“Both Sheikh Salman and the Bahraini Football Association had concerns about Sheikh Salman being involved, including whether it would be lawful, and, after taking advice, chose not to participate in the committee,” the lawyers wrote. “Sheikh Salman plays no role in law enforcement and had absolutely no role in the identification, investigation, arrest or mistreatment of any individual.”
But even in the face of such staunch denials, activists have requested that FIFA conduct an inquiry. “By refusing to adequately investigate these allegations and allowing Sheikh Salman to potentially lead world football, FIFA is putting a noose around its neck,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy for the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.
If elected, Sheikh Salman could bring protesters like Mr. Alwadaei to FIFA’s doorstep just as the organization has signaled that human rights are a priority.
There have been concerns about construction conditions for migrant laborers in Qatar, which some have likened to indentured servitude. But in December, FIFA announced that it had hired John Ruggie, a Harvard professor who helped the United Nations develop human rights principles, to establish similar requirements for World Cup hosts and sponsors for the 2026 bidding process.
Mr. Ruggie, who is expected to make recommendations by the end of next month, said examining the allegations against Sheikh Salman was not within the scope of his assignment. “I’d hope and expect that the new president would support a commitment to align policies and practices with human rights,” he said.
Sheikh Salman, meanwhile, has positioned himself as a reform candidate, seeking to bring his experience in disciplining violations like match-fixing in Asia to cleaning up soccer on a global scale.
“What is an immediate necessity,” he wrote, “is to lift this phoenix out of the financial, reputational and governance ashes that it has maneuvered itself into.”