MANAMA, Bahrain – The Bahraini sheikh running for FIFA president hit back at human rights groups who have accused him of helping authorities arrest footballers for protesting against the country's ruling monarchy, calling the allegations "dirty tricks and dirty lies."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa insisted he played no part in helping identify the footballers who took part in protests in 2011, denouncing the accusations as politically motivated. Sheikh Salman's role in that investigation has dominated the public debate around the start of his campaign to succeed Sepp Blatter in the Feb. 26 election.
"It's damaging because it is hurts and it really gets to your guts because you hear things that are way beyond any reality," the Asian Football Confederation president said during an hour-long interview in the Bahraini capital Manama.
"Unfortunately I have been used as tool just for a purpose which is a political one ... in elections you always see dirty tricks and dirty lies."
Bahrain continues to witness a crackdown against low-level dissent and unrest. The accusations against Sheikh Salman relate to the start of the Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011 dominated by Bahrain's Shiite majority seeking greater political rights from the Sunni monarchy in the tiny island kingdom.
More than 150 athletes and sports officials were detained in the protests, and some claimed they were tortured by government forces. Rights groups complained to FIFA that Sheikh Salman, who was head of the Bahraini football federation at the time, had a role in identifying players who took part in the protests and were later arrested.
"All I can say to them is that they either got the wrong guy and the wrong name or I'm sorry to say they are creating nasty lies about something they want to use for their purpose," Sheikh Salman said. "If they want to look at political issues I think there are other channels that they need to talk (to) but here in football we talk about football ... we don't want politics to get involved in matters of the game."
A national team player imprisoned for three months in 2011 defended in the sheikh in an interview organized by the candidate's campaign team.
"I have known Sheikh Salman for a while — we traveled together in the national team," striker A'ala Hubail said. "I don't think that he was involved in this ... I would never lie. I don't think he did this and I am sure of it."
Recalling events from four years ago, the 33-year-old Hubail said he only took to the streets in protest in a bid to improve conditions for sport in Bahrain.
"We didn't want to harm anyone or offend anybody," Hubail told the AP at the Manama sports club. "Unfortunately they mixed everything up. On Bahrain television, some people wanted to take advantage of the situation and use the players for their own good ... so I was arrested for about three months and then I was released.
"Of course I was upset. I have served this country for years in the circuit and for them to think that I would to want to offend my country or certain individuals."
Scrutiny of the 49-year-old sheikh has centered on a 2011 Bahraini report that he was proposed to lead a fact-finding committee in relation to the uprising.
"This is a committee that's been asked to look (at events) within the sports law, not the civil law ... but never met because it cannot look into responsibility beyond its restriction," he said. "The local law forbids us from taking any action which is unrelated to sport. It's as easy as that. And the Bahrain federation which I chaired for more than 10 years never took a single decision on unrelated football matters. Never."
FIFA's election watchdog on Thursday confirmed Sheikh Salman as one of five presidential contenders, rejecting complaints against his candidacy and a public campaign by rights activists.
The sheikh maintained that his priority during the uprising against the ruling royal family, of which he is a member, was to "keep sport intact" and use football unifying force for Bahrainis.
"This is the main thing that we need to fix during the 2011 events," he said. "What's the role I did beyond that? How we make sure football continued to play at every level. Sports shouldn't get involved in political ... my role is hopefully to bring always people together.
"Yes, they were difficult times where you can feel there is some tension but I think it eased off within a very limited time. I think the healing time got people back together and this is what we want to achieve. We don't want to go back and people trying to divide us in causes that only interest them, not the people around here."
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