Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa enters FIFA presidency race

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Bahraini royal family member Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa is running for FIFA president, a move that will put his human rights record under renewed scrutiny.

The Asian Football Confederation said on Monday that Sheikh Salman, the body's president, has the "overwhelming support" of its executive committee. The confederation said it has been assured that the sheikh's "campaign will be entirely self-financed and that he will not use the AFC's resources, human or otherwise, in the election."

The 49-year-old Sheikh Salman is one of seven contenders who have declared their candidacies before Monday's filing deadline for the Feb. 26 election. They are seeking to replace Sepp Blatter as the governing body tries to move beyond serious corruption allegations.

FIFA's election oversight committee was quickly urged by rights groups to reject Sheikh Salman as a candidate when it conducts integrity checks required by election rules.

Questions have been raised over whether Sheikh Salman adequately protected Bahrain national team players after some took part in pro-democracy protests in 2011. Some players say they were tortured while detained by government forces when the sheikh was head of the Bahrain Football Association.

"Sheikh Salman played a key role in Bahrain's retaliation against athlete-protesters," the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and the Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain said in a joint statement. "Throughout the government crackdown, he allegedly examined photographs of the protesters, identifying Bahraini athletes for the security forces."

The Sunni-led monarchy, backed by forces from nearby Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, crushed widespread Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations in 2011 that were led by the country's Shiite majority and called for greater political freedoms in the tiny island nation.

In the wake of the unrest, Sheikh Salman was named chairman of a committee charged with examining the role athletes played in the protests.

He previously challenged critics to present proof of wrongdoing, which he denies, and suggested that such questions have to do with politics and not sport.

Human Rights Watch Gulf researcher Nicholas McGeehan said electing a member of Bahrain's royal family to lead FIFA "will only further tarnish the organisation's image."

"FIFA members should look long and hard at the Al Khalifas' use of torture and allegations that Sheikh Salman failed to protect footballers from abuses, and ask themselves if this is a family they want to represent them at the highest level," McGeehan said.

Sheikh Salman faced similar questions when he was elected president of AFC in a landslide victory in May 2013, and won a seat on the FIFA executive committee.

He previously supported the presidential campaign of Michel Platini, the UEFA president who was a strong favourite until Sept. 25, when a Swiss criminal investigation against Blatter for a "disloyal payment" was announced.

Platini received 2 million Swiss francs (about $2 million) approved by Blatter from FIFA funds in 2011 which they say was for advisory work done at least nine years earlier. Both have said there was no contract for the payment.

Platini seems unlikely to stand in the election after he and Blatter were both given 90-day suspensions, and UEFA on Monday threw its support behind his right-hand man, Gianni Infantino.

In an Oct. 2 statement, Sheikh Salman said FIFA needed "a firm hand to run the world body competently and with a determination to conduct its affairs professionally and with maximum transparency."

Other candidates vying the FIFA job include Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, South African tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, former FIFA official Jerome Champagne, Liberian soccer association president Musa Bility and David Nakhid, a former player from Trinidad and Tobago.