Support for Re-election of Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman as President of the AFC Signals a Step Backwards for Human Rights

With the vast support that emerged for the formerly imprisoned Bahrain-born footballer Hakeem AlAraibi, Australia and the broader football community demonstrated how influence and pressure could promote human rights – including the release of AlAraibi. Unfortunately, these efforts are now being undermined by the backing of Sheikh Salman’s attempt to get re-elected as president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) by countries like Australia – despite his likely role in targeting Bahraini athletes for exercising their right to free expression.

Valid concerns have been raised over Sheikh Salman, a relative of Bahrain’s king, and his ties to the Bahraini government’s repressive policies and overall crackdown on civil society and human rights. Originally elected as president of the AFC in 2013, Salman is currently seeking to maintain his position and has received overwhelming support from 40 out of the 47 countries within the confederation. Out of all of these countries, Sheikh Salman’s most surprising supporter of is Australia.

The Government of Australia recently was involved in a months-long struggle with the Bahraini and Thai governments to free Hakeem AlAraibi from detention in Thailand and to halt his extradition to Bahrain. AlAraibi, who was an Australian resident and footballer with refugee status at the time, would likely have faced imprisonment and torture if forcibly sent back to Bahrain. He was eventually released and allowed to safely return to Australia, following 76 days of detention, and was granted Australian citizenship this month. Many figured that Australia would take a more aggressive stance against Bahraini Sheikh Salman’s re-election as president of the AFC, especially considering the treatment of AlAraibi by the Bahraini government and AlAraibi’s own concerns regarding Salman. However, Australia has instead elected to continue to support Salman, by extension legitimizing the repressive Bahraini government.

Hakeem AlAraibi has been an outspoken critic of Sheikh Salman and has openly criticized the AFC president for his likely role in the Bahraini government’s crackdown on athletes following the 2011 protest movement. The Bahrain Football Association—headed by Sheikh Salman at the time—oversaw the suspension of several football players who had participated in the peaceful protests, including members of Bahrain’s national team. Several of those players were subsequently arrested, detained, and publicly humiliated, and some have claimed that they were abused and tortured during their detention. AlAraibi spoke out during Sheikh Salman’s candidacy for the presidency of FIFA in 2016, blaming him in part for failing to intervene on behalf of athletes who were arrested and tortured for participating in pro-democracy protests.

The Football Federation Australia (FFA) has confirmed that it will be backing Sheikh Salman in the election, to which AlAraibi has expressed his shock and disappointment. He has called for the head of the FFA, Chris Nikou, to directly address concerns surrounding Salman, and expressed his fears that by supporting Sheikh Salman the FFA could very well violate their own human right policies. Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) also released a statement noting its “deep concerns” over Salman’s backing. PFA Chief Executive John Didulica also released his own statement raising concerns over Salman’s ties to the Bahraini royal family, citing concerns for Sheikh Salman’s ability to put his constitutional duties to the players within the AFC over his ties to Bahrain.

Despite the backlashed faced by the FFA for their support of Sheikh Salman as AFC president, it appears likely that Sheikh Salman will secure his position as president again. With the last remaining competitor withdrawing from the race, Salman is now the only remaining candidate for the seat. This development came as both the United Arab Emirates’ candidate, Mohammed Khalfan AlRomaithi, and Qatar’s candidate, Saoud Al-Mohannadi, announced their withdrawals from the election and backed Sheikh Salman.

Australia and the FFA’s unfortunate support of Sheikh Salman’s re-election as president of the AFC signals that, while the country may support human rights when it directly challenges one of their own players, they do not truly seek to promote and protect human rights globally. Australia and the FFA must withdraw public support for Sheikh Salman and instead raise questions regarding his role in Bahrain’s broader suppression of human rights and targeting of athletes.

Ethan Cook is an Advocacy Intern with ADHRB