Bengaluru, March 19: Hakeem Al Araibi, the refugee footballer, who was recently given Australian citizenship, has joined the players union in criticising Football Federation of Australia's (FFA) decision to back incumbent Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who is seeking re-election as Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief.
Sheikh Salman, who is literally FIFA's number two, was strongly criticised over the case of Hakeem, whose detention in Thailand and threat of extradition to Bahrain caused an international outcry.
Hakeem had claimed he was targeted for political reasons following his criticism of Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain's ruling family.
However, Sheikh Salman has long denied any links to Bahrain's crackdown on anti-government protesters including footballers in his former role as head of the Bahrain FA.
The AFC waited for almost two months after Hakeem's detention in Bangkok to issue its first public statement, saying Sheikh Salman was not responsible for the case and that the Asian governing body was working with FIFA to try to resolve it.
"I was overwhelmed by the support I had from the Australian and Asian football communities who worked so hard to free me from unjust detention in Thailand," Hakeem said in a joint statement issued by rights groups Amnesty International Australia and Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.
"Sickening": The decision of Australia football body to pledge support for the re-election of under-fire Asian football chief Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa draws criticism over the Hakeem al-Araibi affairhttps://t.co/jjsyPS6TL8#Hakeemalaraibi— AFP Sport (@AFP_Sport) March 18, 2019
"Now, I'm shocked and disappointed that the FFA has decided to continue to support a person who oversaw my detention and torture in Bahrain.
"How can he be a 'fit and proper' leader for football in our region?," he added.
Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) also slammed the decision saying its executive had noted FFA's position with "deep concern".
"FFA's support - without consulting with key members of the FFA Congress - is difficult to understand given the unity of purpose the Australian football family recently displayed to help secure the freedom of Hakeem Al Araibi," said PFA Chief Executive John Didulica.
However, FFA justifed their stand, saying it was backing the Bahraini royal's candidacy after discussions with the rest of the 12-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations Football Federation.
It was the consensus view of all of ASEAN that Sheikh Salman is the best credentialed candidate to continue to lead the development of football both in ASEAN and in Asia more broadly," said FFA chairman Chris Nikou.
The AFC election to select the new office bearers for another four-year term will be held at the 29th AFC Congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on April 6.
(With inputs from Agencies)