The Asian Football Confederation says its president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa has had no influence on their handling of the case of a Bahraini player arrested in Thailand.
Hakeem Alaraibi, who lived and played in Australia, was arrested in November in Bangkok on an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request.
Alaraibi 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 says Sheikh Salman was recused from all matters relating to West Asia 18 months ago to avoid conflicts of interest and AFC vice president Praful Patel is working with global governing body FIFA “to find a solution” to the matter of the detention of Alaraibi.
FIFA has said Alaraibi should be freed and allowed to return to Australia to continue his career.
The AFC has been criticised for its silence on the matter after being called upon to intervene to secure Alaraibi’s release by the global footballers’ union FIFPro and its Australian equivalent, among other groups.
In an open letter to Al-Khalifa in December, former Socceroo Craig Foster labelled the AFC’s response to Alaraibi’s situation “grossly inadequate” and has repeatedly called on the body to do more to assist the footballer.
When Socceroos coach Graham Arnold and player Mathew Leckie were asked if they had been following Alaraibi’s case during a press conference at the Asian Cup in Dubai, an AFC official interjected before Arnold or Leckie could answer the question.
Alaraibi, who played for Bahrain’s national soccer team and was a critic of the government, was convicted of vandalising a police station and sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia. He denies wrongdoing.
Human rights groups say Bahraini authorities tortured Alaraibi because of his brother’s political activities during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
Alaraibi 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 February 8 or potentially apply for an extension for another 30 days.
If they fail to do either, Alaraibi would have to be released, according to his defence lawyer.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was asked by reporters on Friday about a FIFA statement saying they wanted to meet him to discuss Alaraibi’s case. He did not answer them.
Thailand’s ambassador to Australia Nantana Sivakua on Thursday said the case was proceeding in accordance with the law, stressing that it was up to the court to decide whether Alaraibi will be released or not.
She said Mr Alaraibi was being represented by well-respected human rights lawyers in Thailand and Australian consular officials.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne travelled to Bangkok this month and told Thai authorities that Australia was concerned about Alaraibi’s detention and the possibility he would be sent back to Bahrain.