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Football: Bahrain sheikh denies vote-buying, abuse claims

A Bahraini royal who is vying to become Asian football's new leader rejected claims over vote-buying and human rights abuses Friday ahead of presidential elections next month.

SINGAPORE: A Bahraini royal who is vying to become Asian football's new leader rejected claims over vote-buying and human rights abuses Friday ahead of presidential elections next month.

Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa told AFP there was no "credible evidence" in a report which raised fears of possible vote interference on his behalf by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA).

Sheikh Salman, head of Bahrain's football association, also dismissed links to the arrest and alleged maltreatment of leading players and officials during the country's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

The explosive claims threatened to cast a shadow over the May 2 vote in Malaysia, when the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) will choose a replacement for Mohamed bin Hammam, who stepped down after being accused of bribery and financial impropriety.

"It's not true," Sheikh Salman told AFP, when asked about the vote-interference claims. "You know how it is. Unfortunately in elections sometimes people would like to come up with some stories without any credible evidence."

"We can talk forever about different things but let's stick to the truth and reality."

His comments come after the Inside World Football website said various sources had accused the OCA of trying to influence the AFC's 2009 leadership vote. Bin Hammam, who won that election, made the same claim at the time.

The report said the OCA appeared to be making "bulk preparations" for the upcoming poll by reserving hotel rooms for the May 2 poll in Kuala Lumpur, and had accompanied the Bahraini royal on his election travels.

Sheikh Salman also denied the allegations over human rights abuses. He said a detailed statement would be released later.

Observers say the sheikh is considered the front-runner among four candidates to lead the AFC, along with Yousef Al Serkal of the UAE, Thailand's Worawi Makudi and Saudi Arabia's Hafez Ibrahim Al Medlej.

The Kuwait-based OCA did not give a response to the report when approached by AFP, and the AFC said it had no comment. But two of the sheikh's rivals, Serkal and Worawi, called for a "clean" contest.

"I am keen to see a clean election that is decided by our members without any pressure from outside organisations," Serkal told AFP via email. "We do not need to be surrounded by another possible vote-buying allegation which involves AFC," he added.

Worawi said he hoped the election would be held in a "democratic way".

"I would wish to see a very clean contest. We are all friends in Asia and after the election we need to work together," he told AFP.

The Inside World Football report also said officials from Sheikh Salman's office had identified players and officials from video footage of pro-democracy protests given to it by the Bahrain authorities in 2011.

Bahrain's top striker Alaa Hubail was one of those who was detained and confessed on television, while his brother Mohamed, another Bahrain international, received a two-year jail sentence, reports say.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights said relatives had claimed that both were tortured in prison, the report said. More than 30 players and officials were suspended by their clubs during the crackdown, it added.

Bahrain is in the spotlight this week with pro-democracy campaigners stepping up protests and clashing with riot police in the run-up to the Formula One Grand Prix. Rights groups say 80 people have died in unrest since February 2011.