ABU DHABI (Reuters) - The Asian Football Confederation said on Saturday that President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa had had no influence on their handling of the case of a Bahraini player arrested in Thailand in November over a prison sentence in his homeland.
Hakeem Al Araibi, who lived and played in Australia, was arrested in November in Bangkok on an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request.
Araibi was a vocal critic of Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family and cousin of the king, when he contested the FIFA presidential election in 2015.
Saturday’s statement said Sheikh Salman had been recused from all matters relating to West Asia and AFC Vice President Praful Patel was working with global governing body FIFA “to find a solution” to the matter of the detention of Araibi.
“Mr Patel was asked 18 months ago by the AFC Executive Committee to handle matters involving the AFC’s West Zone to ensure there were no accusations of a conflict of interest involving AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa,” it added.
The AFC has been criticized for its silence on the matter after being called upon to intervene to secure Araibi’s release by the global footballers’ union FIFPro and its Australian equivalent, among other groups.
Araibi, who played for Bahrain’s national soccer team and was a critic of the government, was convicted of vandalizing a police station and sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia.
He denies wrongdoing. The Bahrain government says Araibi can appeal against the sentence if he returns to the kingdom.
Human rights groups say Bahraini authorities tortured Araibi because of his brother’s political activities during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
Araibi was granted asylum in Australia in 2017 after fleeing Bahrain three years earlier.
Under the Thai legal system, Bahrain would need to submit relevant documents for his extradition by Feb. 8 or potentially apply for an extension for another 30 days.
If they failed to do either, Araibi would have to be released, according to his defense lawyer.
“This case is currently in our justice system so we will have to wait for the court’s decision,” Thai Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Busadee Santipitaks told Reuters.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was asked by reporters on Friday about a FIFA statement saying they wanted to meet him to discuss Araibi’s case. He did not answer them.
FIFA has said Araibi should be freed and allowed to return to Australia to continue his career.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne traveled to Bangkok this month and told Thai authorities that Australia was concerned about Araibi’s detention and the possibility he would be sent back to Bahrain.
Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat in Bangkok, editing by Toby Davis