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Afghanistan women’s football team.

(New York) – The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) needs to act more swiftly on complaints and evidence brought by women players of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse by leaders of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF), Human Rights Watch said today. Specifically, FIFA needs to speedily and fairly investigate all AFF members accused of facilitating abuse, and set up effective measures to ensure the safety of whistleblowers and survivors.

Afghanistan’s attorney general should ensure that all AFF officials apparently responsible for the sexual abuse of female players, as well as those accused of facilitating the abuse or covering it up, including senior members of the AFF, are subject to criminal investigation. Those found responsible should be prosecuted in each case where evidence suggests their culpability.

Female players, coaches, and whistleblowers have taken enormous risks over the past three years to collect evidence and file written complaints with FIFA against the powerful male leaders of the AFF, including the federation’s president, Keramuddin Karim. After hearing testimony regarding horrific incidents of sexual abuse, FIFA’s Ethics Committee suspended Karim for life and fined him 1 million Swiss francs (about US$1 million) in June 2019. Karim has not been arrested, though Afghanistan’s attorney general issued a warrant for his arrest in June. Moreover, FIFA, which holds significant influence over its member associations, has yet to conduct a full investigation of all officials who may be culpable.

“The president of the Afghan Football Federation has been kicked out of football after FIFA’s Ethics Committee found him responsible for abuses,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “But a full test of FIFA’s human rights policy is whether sport is safe for women and girls in Afghanistan – and they won’t be safe until all abusers, including those who enabled crimes, are removed and protective systems for whistleblowing, justice, and remedy are in place.”

The coach of the Afghan women’s national team, Kelly Lindsey, wrote in an August letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino that the governing body has not addressed the “widespread culture of abuse” by “senior officials in ongoing positions of power” at the Afghan federation and “complicity at all levels of the AFF.”

Afghanistan’s women’s national football team was founded in 2011 and has operated from the beginning under the control – including pay, travel, and training – of the male-led federation. Sexual assault and other abuses of female players, including girls as young as 14, are reported to have taken place between 2013 and 2018 in the federation president’s office and at a training camp in Jordan in February 2018.

FIFA was alerted to sexual and other abuses as early as April 2017, and eventually opened an investigation, asking Lindsey and a former team captain, Khalida Popal, to gather evidence. Karim’s lifetime ban came after a FIFA investigation found him guilty of “having abused his position and sexually abused various female players, in violation of the FIFA code of ethics.”

“We are football coaches and players, not investigators – yet we did our best, knowing the lives of our players were at immediate risk and at significant cost to our safety and wellbeing,” Lindsey said. “My colleagues and I went right to the top of FIFA, we went to the Ethics Committee and told everyone who would listen that our girls were telling us they had been raped, beaten and abused. The evidence we gathered pointed clearly to a widespread culture of abuse. Yet to date there has been no evidence of any investigation into the conduct of the other AFF officials who continue to hold office while accused.”

The AFF’s general secretary, Sayed Ali Reza Aghazada, was suspended by the Attorney General’s office during an investigation into his alleged role in the abuse of women players. However, in April, he was elected to the regional governing executive committee of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Human Rights Watch wrote to FIFA for comment and asked the global football governing body to confirm that full and proper investigations are underway.

FIFA replied:

We can confirm that FIFA is carefully looking into allegations that have been made against additional persons. As stated before, FIFA will not hesitate to impose sanctions if and when justified, just as it recently did in the case of the President of the association, who has been banned from football for life.

Since the investigations before the FIFA Ethics Committee are confidential, we cannot comment further on the case. For the rest, we understand that criminal investigations are underway in Afghanistan with regard to some of the matters relating to this complaint and, for its part, FIFA hopes that all those guilty of such crimes will be brought to justice by the relevant authorities and will be held fully accountable.

Where there is an ongoing risk to the safety of others, especially the safety of children or vulnerable adults, individuals who are the subject of serious abuse allegations should be immediately suspended by local law enforcement and FIFA pending full investigation.

“The crisis in Afghan women’s football shows that abusers can get in the system and then there is no way women can access justice,” Khalida Popal, now the program director for the Afghan women’s football team, told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch long urged FIFA to set up a mechanism for human rights defenders and whistleblowers to file complaints, which FIFA has now done. However, any adequate whistleblowing and investigative system should protect those who bring complaints against retaliation, and should not place the responsibility of investigating, collecting evidence, or furnishing proof on players and coaches.

FIFA should create new eligibility requirements under its Human Rights Policy for all federations, regional bodies like the AFC, and FIFA membership and leadership. These requirements should make anyone who is the subject of any ongoing credible abuse investigation ineligible for any role in a FIFA body where they can intimidate witnesses or influence the investigation. Individuals found to have engaged in serious abuses should be barred from FIFA membership and jobs.

“Whistleblowers and victims of sexual assault should be able to expect that FIFA will conduct timely and thorough investigations of all abuse allegations,” Worden said. “Going forward, FIFA needs to urgently put in place a system fit for purpose that will meet international standards of addressing sexual assault, care, and justice for survivors.”

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