SITRA, Bahrain (AP) — Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa has emerged as the leading contender to win the race for the most powerful position in Asian football despite a campaign by critics who accuse him of not doing enough to investigate allegations of rights abuses against some players in Bahrain.
Sheik Salman is the head of Bahrain's football association and helped identify a group of national team players so they could be arrested in the aftermath of the country's pro-democracy uprising in 2011. While he has not been accused of being involved in the alleged abuse of those players after their arrest, he chaired a meeting in which an investigation into the role of athletes in the protests was launched. He has since done little to publicly defend his players — including several who claim they were tortured.
Two of those players, brothers Mohammed and Alaa Hubail, accuse Sheik Salman of abandoning them. They said they received no apology or compensation from the Bahrain football association for the months of alleged mistreatment.
"We are his responsibility and people like him should solve the problem, not ignore it," Mohammed Hubail told The Associated Press. "I have a lot of anger. I really miss playing in my team and for Bahrain."
Sheik Salman, a member of the country's ruling family, said there is no reason to apologize to the players, insisting that this was an issue for politicians, not the football federation. Bahrain is in the grip of a more than two-year long political crisis inspired by the Arab Spring.
But his refusal to address the allegations could hurt Sheik Salman in the final days of the campaign as he seeks to become Asian Football Confederation president, a position that has been vacant since scandal-tainted Mohammed bin Hammam stepped down at the start of investigations that eventually led to his worldwide ban from football.
Sheik Salman is the front-runner ahead of Thursday's election in Malaysia. He faces Yousuf al-Serkal of the United Arab Emirates, Worawi Makudi of Thailand and Hafez al-Medlej of Saudi Arabia for the AFC's top job. He's also running against Hassan Al Thawadi, the secretary-general of the Qatar 2022 World Cup organizing committee, for a spot on the FIFA executive.
Sheik Salman's opponents have mostly been silent on the alleged rights issue until now, and also have their own baggage to deal with. All three of the other challengers are closely tied to bin Hammam, who has been banned for life from football after a bribery scandal when he ran for the FIFA presidency.
But rights groups have recently drawn attention to the issue, including the Bahrain Center for Human Rights which demanded FIFA take action to nullify Sheik Salman's candidacy and end the practice of using "the sport as a tool for human rights violations and abuse."
The Washington, D. C.-based group Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain also sent a letter to AFC members alleging that the players were "arrested, detained, abused, tortured, and publicly humiliated."
"In light of the abuses inflicted upon football players ... as well as their ongoing suspension from the sport, we ask that you make the right decision by choosing not to elect Sheik Salman," the group said in its letter.
Sheik Salman has denied the allegations, describing them as an effort to damage his reputation.
"I can assure anyone that the (Bahrain Football Association) is being guided according to the highest possible governance standards of integrity and transparency," Sheik Salman wrote. "No action has been taken under my direction against any member of the football community."
Inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain's Shiite majority took to the streets in 2011 to demand that the country's Sunni dynasty loosen its control on top government and security posts. After days of mostly peaceful demonstrations, the regime cracked down on the protesters. More than 60 people have been killed in the unrest and thousands arrested.
More than 150 athletes, coaches and referees from a range of sports were jailed after a special committee, chaired by Sheik Salman, identified them from photos of the protests. Some football clubs, all from Shiite villages, were also sanctioned.
Until then, the Hubail brothers and Sayed Mohamed Adnan had been the faces of Bahraini football. They helped lead the small island nation to fourth place in the 2004 Asian Cup and helped get them within one victory of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. They're no longer part of the national squad.
Alaa Hubail won the golden boot in the 2004 tournament and his widespread popularity prompted Pepsi to plaster his portrait on billboards across the capital Manama.
Adnan anchored the defense. But he was forced to flee after taking part in the protests, playing first in Australia and then in Kuwait. Interviewed in Kuwait City, he refused to talk about the protests for fear of putting his family in Bahrain at risk.
"Some people sadly want to end my career because of their belief that I am for this and against that," he said. "I love Bahrain. Playing in the national team of my country is a great honor. I would love to do it any time. I would do it without hesitation."
The Hubails remain traumatized by what they said were several months of beatings in detention. Both are in their 30s and the only football they play now is with the neighborhood team in Sitra.
"We served the country — everyone knows Alaa and Mohamed," Alaa said. "Our current situation is not like before ... It was a cruel experience for me and my brother."
The hardest part for them seems to be the punishment they endured for taking part in demonstrations. Their father, Ahmed Hubail, said the family "live in fear" the two men could be detained at any moment.
"This has affected us as a family. It is too hard now," Ahmed Hubail said. "The international community should pressure the government to pay compensation but I doubt they will do it. We will never progress if there is not a solution to these past mistakes."
Hussain al-Qatari contributed to this report from Kuwait City.