FIFA fails to live up to own human rights standards in #SaveHakeem case, critics say

Photo: Lenbj/Wikimedia

AFC president Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa (photo) is critisised for a lack of action calling for the release of footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi. Photo: Lenbj/Wikimedia


By Stine Alvad
The Hakeem Al-Araibi case puts FIFA and the AFC in a bad light, say human rights organisations, players’ unions and observers questioning their efforts in advocating the release of the detained footballer.

In November 2018, former Bahraini national footballer now playing in Australia Hakeem Al-Araibi, was stopped and detained in Thailand due to calls from Bahraini authorities on an Interpol Red Notice. Al-Araibi fled Bahrain in 2014 after being convicted of vandalising a police station in relation to Arab spring uprisings and he was granted refugee status and permanent residency in Australia.

For the past weeks, Australian foreign affair minister, Marise Payne, as well as human rights organisations, have called and lobbied for Al-Araibi’s release but Thai authorities have not let him go.

While FIFA has issued statements calling for “a humane and speedy resolution of the case concerning the player Hakeem Al Araibi”, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has so far not issued any official calls. According to Australia’s players’ union, neither the AFC nor FIFA have lived up to their responsibilities.

"In so far as the protection of their most vulnerable participants, we are seeing FIFA failing at its first test,” says John Didulica, chief executive of Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) according to Reuters about the lack of action from the AFC and its president, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who is also vice president in FIFA.

"The silence of Sheikh Salman and the AFC on this matter means they are not promoting human rights as the statutes of FIFA and the AFC oblige them to do," Didulica said, according to the ABC.

“Sport and politics are Siamese twins”
Back in 2015, when Sheikh Salman, a cousin of the Bahraini king, was vying to replace Sepp Blatter as FIFA president, Al-Araibi was part of a group critical of the sheikh claiming that the candidate had played a part in the imprisonment and torturing of athletes in Bahrain in 2012.

Sheikh Salman will run for a new term as AFC president in April, a win that could be in danger, should he choose not to work for the release of Al-Araibi, says Didulica to the ABC.

According to expert in Middle Eastern sport and politics, James M. Dorsey, this case highlights that, in spite of many sports organisations arguing the opposite, there is a close connection between sport and politics.

“They (sport and politics) are Siamese twins joined at the hip inextricably,” Dorsey says according to an analysis by Tracey Holmes of the ABC, “and you need to have a governance of that relationship and as long as you deny that relationship exists, you in a sense have free license to do what you want,” Dorsey says in the analysis that calls Al-Baraini an athlete ‘caught in a geopolitical powerplay’.

"I think that FIFA and particularly its president, Gianni Infantino, is between a rock and a hard place. Infantino has been cuddling up to the Saudis, the Bahrainis, the Emiratis on a number of issues including the expansion in the number of competing teams in the World Cup," Dorsey explains to ABC faulting FIFA and the AFC for not living up to international law.

"FIFA, the AFC and all other international sports associations are bound by international law and should be seen to be implementing it. So far, they are not."

The Al-Araibi case will be a significant pointer towards how sport and human rights will be perceived in the future, says Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association in a statement on the case issued on 10 January:

“…the future of the global sport and human rights project will be judged based on whether Hakeem is set free and returns safely to his life as a footballer for Pascoe Vale FC, or whether he is sent back to Bahrain to face torture or worse based on purely politically-motivated charges. The fact that it has taken this long, despite the immense leverage and influence available to football’s top officials, shows we still have a lot of work to do to make human rights a permanent reality in the world of sport."

Australian observers and government have so far been the most outspoken in the #FreeHakeem case, including former professional footballler Craig Foster, who is currently a sports analysts with Australian news site SBS. Foster has actively called for people to engage in the campaign issuing a paper listing various ideas for actions. In the paper, he also says that a protest in connection with the Asian Cup Final, played in Abu Dhabi, AUE, on 2 February is being considered.

Further reading:

More background on Sheikh Salman, football and human rights in this analysis by Bonita Mersiades:

Links to examples of petitions calling for the release of Hakeem Al-Araibi:


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