GENEVA (AP) — Former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam won his case against a life ban from soccer on Thursday for allegedly bribing voters during his challenge to Sepp Blatter.
However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport said its panel was not convinced Bin Hammam is innocent of corruption — but it overturned the ban because FIFA failed to find conclusive evidence.
"It is a situation of 'case not proven,' coupled with concern on the part of the Panel that the FIFA investigation was not complete or comprehensive enough to fill the gaps in the record," sport's highest court said in a statement.
Despite the legal victory, Bin Hammam's bid to clear his name is far from over.
Bin Hammam faces new charges of bribery at the Asian Football Confederation, which claimed this week that its president's financial management was revealed in a forensic audit of the governing body's accounts.
FIFA responded to the CAS verdict "with concern", saying it will ask its newly appointed independent prosecutor Michael J. Garcia to re-examine the case.
"The FIFA Ethics Committee will then decide based on the reports and evidence presented to it if any action is required to be taken against Mohamed bin Hammam," FIFA said in a statement.
Bin Hammam's victory at CAS will only partly restore his shattered reputation.
The panel, which was split 2-1 in his favor, "is not making any sort of affirmative finding of innocence in relation to Mr. Bin Hammam," the court said. "It is more likely than not that Mr. Bin Hammam was the source of the monies that were brought into Trinidad and Tobago" at an election campaign rally in May 2011.
FIFA got evidence from Caribbean whistleblowers who said they were offered $40,000 cash bribes during the 63-year-old Qatari's electioneering visit.
Bin Hammam denied wrongdoing, claiming Blatter helped orchestrate a scandal to guarantee his election victory unopposed a few weeks later.
The ruling Thursday followed a two-day hearing in April at the court in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Bin Hammam, who refused to attend FIFA hearings that enforced the life ban, did not attend or testify. Blatter gave evidence by video link from FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
FIFA's failed prosecution used evidence gathered by an investigations agency led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, which was hired to conduct the probe.
Freeh's team reported that it found "substantial credible evidence that cash was offered to and accepted" by Caribbean Football Union delegates after Bin Hammam made his election pitch at a hotel in Port of Spain.
FIFA's code of ethics prohibits officials receiving any cash gifts, yet Caribbean officials were given brown envelopes stuffed with piles of $100 bills.
On Thursday, the CAS panel published its dissatisfaction with the quality of evidence.
"No efforts were made to trace the source of (the) banknotes that were photographed," the court said. The panel "recognizes that it is possible to infer that the failure of Mr. Bin Hammam to carry out that relatively simple exercise in the course of these proceedings might be explained by the fact that it would have confirmed that he was the source."
Elected to lead Asian soccer in 2002, bin Hammam launched his bid to lead the world governing body last year just months after helping Qatar win 2022 World Cup hosting rights.
Bin Hammam and Blatter were locked in a tight race for the presidency and 25 CFU countries were thought to hold the balance of power among the 208 FIFA member nations.
Whistleblowers testified that FIFA vice president Jack Warner, the longtime strongman of Caribbean soccer, told them he advised bin Hammam to bring cash instead of formal gifts to the meeting.
The AFC allegations, concerning bribery and mismanagement of commercial contracts, will block bin Hammam from an immediate return to his office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The AFC imposed a 30-day suspension on him this week. He is also prevented from retaking his seat at FIFA's executive committee table.
Bin Hammam has represented Asia on FIFA's executive committee since 1996. He was elected AFC president in 2002, and was serving his final four-year mandate when the FIFA election scandal rocked soccer.
United Arab Emirates Football Association President Yousuf al-Sarkal called for the AFC to reinstate its leader.
"This is to be fair to the man," al-Sarkal, who is a member of the AFC's executive board, told The Associated Press. "He has gone through enough of allegations and accusations. It's not fair for an individual who has served football in the right way."
Bin Hammam had once been Blatter's close ally and worked as a campaign manager for his previous FIFA election victories in 1998 and 2002.
However, the Qatari official expressed growing frustration in claiming that the now 76-year-old Swiss reneged on promises to step down.
AP Sports Writer Mike Casey contributed to this report from Dubai.
Follow Graham Dunbar on Twitter at https://twitter.com/gdunbarap