KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa barely had time to toast his landslide victory in the Asian Football Confederation’s presidential election on Thursday before he was again the target of accusations over human rights abuses in Bahrain.
Adept at ducking and deflecting questions during his election campaign about a bloody 2011 uprising, an emboldened Sheik Salman went on the offensive at his first news conference after winning the top job in Asian soccer.
“I have no problem, I will answer that,” he said when an AFC official attempted to block a question.
”I just have one question - you talk about allegations, but the question is, do you have the proof?
“Somebody talks about the government, I don’t think this our business in football, we are football people. If anybody has the proof that the Bahrain Football Association has violated the statutes of FIFA or AFC then present it, otherwise we move on.”
Sheikh Salman, the head of the Bahrain’s football association, was the AFC’s clear choice in the presidential election, winning 33 of the 46 votes on offer.
Rival Yousuf Al Serkal of the United Arab Emirates garnered just six votes and Thailand’s Worawi Makudi seven.
He also beat Qatari 2022 World Cup organiser Hassan Al Thawadi to claim a seat on FIFA’s all-powerful executive committee.
His success came in the face of pressure from human rights groups concerning the crushing of a pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain two years ago, accusing Sheikh Salman of standing by as players were persecuted for protesting.
The Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) sent a letter to AFC delegates last week urging them not to vote for Sheikh Salman, but the pleas fell on deaf ears.
ADHRB director Husain Abdulla told Reuters he had expected Sheikh Salman to win as he held little faith in the integrity of the AFC or FIFA, which has several key figures forced to resign amid corruption charges.
“I am not surprised that he won both position given the fact that corruption is rooted into these two bodies,” Abdulla said.
“However, as a human rights organisation we were able to highlight the atrocities that took place against the football players in Bahrain and we used this election venue to do that.”
The ADHRB said that, under the direction of Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain’s royal family, football players were arrested, detained, abused, tortured, and publicly humiliated.
Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, crushed Shi‘ite led pro-democracy demonstrations that began in February 2011. At least 35 people were killed. Lower-level unrest has continued since then.
An independent inquiry said authorities had used widespread and excessive force, including torture to extract confessions.
The Bahrain government says it has taken steps to address the brutality of security forces by dismissing those responsible and introducing cameras at police stations to monitor abuses.
But the Shi‘ite-led Bahraini opposition feel the Sunni-ruling Al Khalifa family has not implemented serious human rights reforms in the wake of the unrest.
Maryam Al Khawaja, acting head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, took to Twitter to voice her displeasure at the outcome of Thursday’s election win.
“Salman Alkhalifa, despite human rights violations, wins presidency. When ur from the gulf human rights dont matter,” she said.
Sheikh Salman said he would push on in his two-year term to bring about reform to the AFC, which was hit again this week by the eight-year ban for member Vernon Fernando of Sri Lanka for unethical behaviour.
He said that his strong backing from the AFC showed he was in a good position to complete that task.
“After today’s result most of Asia is united and we have to work hard to convince the others,” the 47-year-old said.
”The 33 votes today has set an example that Asia wanted that change and be united again.
“I‘m humbled and grateful for the support I got today and I hope I can return their confidence and support in the next two years.” (Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Dubai; Editing by Peter Rutherford)