ZURICH (Reuters) - Mohamed Bin Hammam, the Asian soccer chief who was due to challenge Sepp Blatter for the FIFA presidency last month, was banned for life by football’s ruling body on Saturday for his part in a cash-for-votes scandal.
The 62-year-old Qatari, who has been on FIFA’s executive committee since 1996, vowed to appeal against the suspension. He said he was innocent and the case against him was built upon “lies by senior FIFA officials”.
A FIFA ethics committee launched an investigation following allegations that Bin Hammam, a multi-millionaire businessman, had tried to buy the votes of Caribbean Football Union (CFU)officials ahead of the presidential election on June 1.
After a two-day hearing at FIFA headquarters Bin Hammam was found to have broken seven articles of the organisation’s ethics code including one on bribery, acting head of the committee Petrus Damaseb told reporters.
Former CONCACAF president Jack Warner, a major FIFA powerbroker, resigned in June after he was also accused of wrongdoing at the same meeting in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on May 10-11, the latest scandal to hit soccer’s beleaguered governing body.
Like Bin Hammam, Warner was provisionally banned pending the ethics committee investigation into allegations that Caribbean officials were handed $40,000 each in brown envelopes as a sweetener.
Bin Hammam, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president since 2002, pulled out of the FIFA presidential race on May 29, leaving Blatter to be re-elected unopposed for a fourth term three days later.
Damaseb also said two CFU officials, Debbie Minguell and Jason Sylvester, would be banned for one year and recommended further investigations “into conduct of others who attended the meeting of May 10-11”.
Chuck Blazer, the FIFA executive committee member whose report led to the ethics committee probe, was warned for comments he made at a CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) meeting in Zurich on May 30.
None of the four accused attended the two-day hearing in Zurich but Bin Hammam was represented by his lawyers.
“He rejects the findings and maintains his innocence,” said Eugene Gulland, one of the Qatari’s representatives. “He will continue to fight his case through the legal routes that are open to him.
“He has gone on record and maintains the FIFA ethics committee was going to find against him whatever the validity of the case he presented to them.
“The FIFA ethics committee has apparently based its decision on so-called circumstantial evidence which our case has clearly demonstrated was bogus, and founded on lies told by senior FIFA officials,” added Gulland.
“We have not shared our evidence, which is compelling, with the media and FIFA has done exactly the opposite. There appears to be selective and continual leaking of documentation ... to the media to influence public opinion and to create bias.”
One ethics committee report was leaked immediately after Warner’s resignation and said it had found “comprehensive, convincing and overwhelming” evidence that the Trinidadian official and Bin Hammam were involved in attempted bribery.
FIFA was also rocked last year when two executive committee members were banned after allegedly offering to sell votes in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting race to undercover newspaper reporters.
Blatter has promised “zero tolerance” against corruption and vowed to set up a new “solutions committee” to act as a watchdog although he raised eyebrows by naming former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo as possible members.
The 75-year-old Swiss has recently turned against members of his executive committee, saying they are chosen by their respective confederations and he cannot vouch for them.
Blatter was in Argentina, for Sunday’s Copa America final between Uruguay and Paraguay, when the life ban was announced.
Qatar is to host the 2022 World Cup and Bin Hammam’s compatriots said his legacy would live on.
“It’s sad for all of Qatar, not just Mohamed,” said Mohammed Johar, 50, head of logistics for the Al Jazeera sports channel in Doha. “We grew up together, he was president of my club, Al Rayyan.
“From the beginning I never thought these charges were true. He faced problems and tried to solve them honestly.
“The people will remember him very well, not just in Qatar but in Asia and Africa as well,” added Johar.
Bin Hammam must wait several weeks for a full report of the ethics committee’s sentence before he can start his appeal.
He will first have to go to FIFA’s appeals committee and can then take his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez. To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)