JAMES M DORSEY — Sheik Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa has been elected president of the Asian Football Confederation for a second term and vice-president of FIFA . . . amid unanswered questions about the AFC’s handling of corruption investigations and his apparent failure to enforce good governance in his own organisation as well as among its members.
In an indication of the AFC’s apparent weak adherence to standards of propriety, the group decided to move the congress at which Sheikh Salman was re-elected from Kuala Lumpur to Bahrain, the candidate’s home country, even before it became clear that he would not be challenged in the election.
The move appeared to be a an attempt to shine a positive spotlight on a regime that brutally suppressed a popular uprising in 2011 and has since been marred by a crackdown on opposition and persistent allegations of torture and other violations of human rights by officials that include top sports executives.
The omnipotence of Bahrain’s intelligence service was highlighted recently when it barred a scholar entry because he had been interviewed by Aljazeera despite appeals by senior government representatives who had invited him.
The AFC’s non-transparent, manipulative politics were on display at the Bahrain congress, reaffirming former AFC general secretary Peter Velappan’s assessment in 2011 that “there is no democracy in AFC.”
Sheikh Salman prevented Korean football association president Chong Mong-gyu from expressing criticism of gerrymandering of elections for Asian representatives in FIFA’s executive committee that ensured that Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, one of the most powerful figures in international sports, won the seat that could position him for a candidacy for president of the world federation in 2019.
Sheikh Salman argued that such criticism would assault the AFC’s integrity and respect.
Similarly, FIFA president Sepp Blatter was allowed to address the congress as well as a gala dinner but his challengers in next month’s FIFA presidential elections were not.
In his speech, Blatter commended Sheikh Salman for his stewardship of the Asian body, particularly his “cleaning up” of the AFC in the wake of a massive corruption scandal involving disgraced former AFC president and Mohammed Bin Hammam.
“I made a request to speak to the congress. I was allowed to speak at UEFA but not here,” said Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the frontrunner among Blatter’s opponents.
It took the AFC four days to respond to assertions video-taped and made in writing to a FIFA security officer by the group’s finance director, Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong, that he had been asked by general secretary Dato Alex Soosay to “tamper or hide any documents” related to him during corruption investigations in 2012.
In an emailed response to the Malay Mail, the AFC said that it had taken note of the joint disclosure of Mr. Kuan’s statements on this blog and in the Malay newspaper and was “currently seeking to assess the veracity of these allegations.”
Soosay figured prominently at the Bahrain congress sitting on the dais next to Sheikh Salman.
Sources close to the AFC said that it had to date not contacted FIFA security officer Michael John Pride who had taped Kuan’s statement and taken his written testimony.
Similarly Kuan, who was involved in the administering of the Bahrain vote, has yet to be asked to produce his statements and explain what had happened.
Alex Philips, an official of UEFA who has been seconded to the AFC, did however ask Malay Mail executive editor Haresh Deol for a copy of the tape.
A source close to the AFC said the request was “part of the process of checking that the tape is authentic and being able to view the tape.” Asked what the AFC would do once the tape had been authenticated, the source said: “We’ll have to see.”
Some sources close to the AFC and the investigations three years ago into AFC’s management expressed scepticism that the group would act on the evidence.
“The AFC will not ask any questions or look into it as they want the story to pass as soon as possible,” said one.
The AFC’s delayed and non-committal response may have much to do with the fact that Sheikh Salman has effectively buried a 2012 audit by PricewaterhouseCooper that warned that the AFC could be held liable for payments made by a shareholder of Singapore-based World Sports Group to Bin Hammam in advance of the signing of a $1bn master rights agreement.
The audit said the AFC may have been used to launder money, and could have breached sanctions against Iran and North Korea. PwC advised the AFC to seek legal counsel on the possibility of filing a civil complaint or criminal charges against Bin Hammam and on whether it could renegotiate or cancel the WSG contract.
It said that Soosay had authorised related payments.
“Our transaction review revealed that items sampled were, in most cases, authorised by the general secretary or deputy general secretary and the director of finance. As signatories these parties hold accountability for the authorisation of these transactions. We also note the Internal Audit and Finance Committees were aware of this practice,” the PwC report said.
Malaysian police sources told the Malay Mail that the police had been asked by the attorney general to submit by May 13 a report on the alleged theft of documents from the AFC’s Kuala Lumpur headquarters.
Kuan had reported the theft days after he recorded his statements regarding Soosay’s alleged request.
The sources said they hope Kuan’s statements would further their investigation. Malay Mail executive editor Haresh Deol was interviewed by police on Thursday.
“A new IO (investigating officer) is working on this case. The file was passed to him two weeks ago and he must submit the papers to the deputy public prosecutor’s office by May 13. With this new lead, there could be a possibility of calling up the parties concerned in the video to facilitate investigations,” the Malay Mail quoted a police source as saying.
Kuala Lumpur prosecution unit head Suhaimi Ibrahim confirmed to the Mail that police were investigating.
Speaking to Agence France Presse Soosay, who earlier denied Kuan’s assertions, insisted that “the case is closed. It was thoroughly done and dealt with and Bin Hammam was suspended.”
Soosay claimed that Kuan’s statements had been deliberately leaked in advance of the AFC election.
He said: “It’s completely, I don’t know, all of a sudden taken out of context. It’s election fever. But there’s nothing to worry about, there’s no concern. It’s dealt with.”
Pointing to multiple unanswered questions, particularly as a result of the latest revelations, Deol asked in a column in response to the AFC statement: “I would like to know if Kuan had lodged a formal complaint to AFC president Sheikh Salman Ibrahim Al Khalifa regarding the matter.
“If yes, did Salman take any steps to address the issue? After all, his promise, when made president in 2013 was to initiate reforms.
“Also, shouldn’t Pride have reported it to FIFA?… What about the . . . revelations made by PwC? There is a lot of explaining to do. We are stakeholders and we demand answers. Silence is not an option.”
The attempted burial of the audit and the AFC’s non-transparent handling of Kuan’s assertions are noteworthy given the corruption and integrity crisis global that has enveloped football governance in the last four years.
The squashing of the PwC audit hence evidenced a lack of good governance within the AFC on multiple levels.
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James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.
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