More FIFA officials arrested as scandal widens

ZURICH: The unprecedented corruption scandal engulfing FIFA widened yesterday with the arrests of two more top officials in another dramatic dawn raid at a luxury hotel in Zurich. Swiss authorities again acted on a request from the US justice department, a repeat of the sweeping arrests in May that set off the scandal which has shaken world football’s governing body to its core. A source inside FIFA, who requested anonymity said that the two officials targeted were South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) president Juan Angel Napout, and Alfredo Hawit, head of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF).

Both are suspected of taking millions of dollars in bribes in return for selling marketing rights for major regional tournaments in Latin America and World Cup qualifying matches, the Swiss Justice ministry said in a statement. The arrests were carried out at the five-star Baur au Lac hotel, a favorite of FIFA’s officials, and the same spot where seven top football executives were arrested in May on suspicion of involvement in tens of millions of dollars of corruption dating back decades. The New York Times, which broke the news of the fresh arrests, said Swiss authorities descended on the hotel at around 6:00 am (0500 GMT). Swiss officials have not confirmed the identities of the newest suspects, but said they would do so by day’s end. The arrests were the latest in a series of actions targeting FIFA’s senior leadership.

The body’s long-time president Sepp Blatter, the subject of criminal investigation in Switzerland, has been suspended for 90-days and is facing tougher punishment by FIFA’s internal ethics watchdog. The man who had been tipped to succeed him at a special election in February, European football chief Michel Platini, has also been suspended and could be hit with a lifetime ban from football by the end of the month.

As the latest suspects were taken into custody, FIFA’s remaining leadership was set for a second day of crucial meetings on approving a reform package aimed at repairing world football’s tainted global image. FIFA said it would press ahead with that meeting. In a statement, FIFA also said it was “aware of the actions taken today by the US Department of Justice.” It vowed to “continue to cooperate fully with the US investigation as permitted by Swiss law as well as with the investigation being led by the Swiss Office of the Attorney General.” The Times cited several law enforcement officials speaking on condition of anonymity as saying that the US Justice Department would unseal indictments in the case later.

Millions in bribes
The Swiss Federal Office of Justice (FOJ), as the ministry is known, said it had ordered Zurich police to detain the two individuals “based on arrest requests submitted by the United States Department of Justice on 29 November 2015.” The US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, suspects the two “of accepting bribes of millions of dollars,” the FOJ statement said. “Some of the offences were agreed and prepared in the USA. Payments were also processed via US banks,” the FOJ further said. If confirmed that they are the ones being held, Napout of Paraguay and Hawit, a native of Honduras, will both be facing extradition to the US, which could be approved “immediately” if neither suspect challenges the transfer, the FOJ said.

Reform discussions underway
The arrests, and the meeting on reforms, come on the fifth anniversary of the 2010 vote that controversially awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. That decision set off a cascade of allegations of corruption and skullduggery. Before his suspension, Blatter appointed prominent sporting official Francois Carrard to come up with a set of changes aimed at overhauling FIFA’s management structure.—AFP

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