By Paul Nicholson
May 5 – FIFA President Gianni Infantino has won what he hopes will be the first step towards a more significant victory in his battle to quash the Swiss federal criminal investigation into his conduct.
Switzerland’s special prosecutor Stefan Keller, who was investigating Infantino’s undocumented meetings with Switzerland’s former attorney general Michael Lauber, has been taken off the case.
The Appeals Chamber of the Federal Criminal Court (FCC) approved Infantino’s request for Keller’s recusal over comments he had made in press releases in 2020 and 2021, saying they were not “an objective communication of important interim steps in the pre-trial proceedings, but rather one-sided reporting.”
While Keller has been removed from the criminal proceedings he opened in July against Infantino, the investigation itself has not been removed from the Swiss prosecutor’s office. The Swiss will now appoint a new prosecutor.
FIFA and Infantino welcomed the decision to remove Keller with a hard hitting reference to the FCC’s judgement saying: “The FCC emphatically declared that the bias of Mr Keller, as demonstrated by his various media releases, repeated procedural errors, and consistent denial of rights, could not guarantee a fair process.”
The FIFA statement went on to say: “Taken as a whole, the impression was created that Mr Keller was preoccupied with casting himself in a positive light and engaged in one-sided reporting to the detriment of the FIFA President. The FCC found that, contrary to Mr Keller’s claims, this had nothing to do with objective communication that might have been justified in the public interest.”
It is a forceful interpretation of the FCC’s ruling and one that lays down a challenge to the Swiss justice system that has frequently been criticised in its inability to make its prosecutions stick in the FIFA corruption cases.
Infantino and FIFA will be hoping that the FCC appoints a prosecutor who is more receptive to their pressure and arguments. So will former prosecutor Lauber who is also under criminal investigation. There has been speculation that Lauber’s Swiss parliamentary supporters had pressured the FCC to rule against Keller. What is good for Infantino is of course good for Lauber in the current situation.
The Infantino case, while becoming a very public test case of the robustness of the Swiss justice system will not fail (as other FIFA prosecutions have) over time bar issues where there is a 10-year window to bring cases to court.
However, FIFA’s laws do have a time bar of five years for cases of conflict and disloyalty, and 10 years for corruption. On that basis Infantino is close to getting past that first five-year milestone as the Lauber meetings took place in 2016. That would of course remove any obstacle for his standing for re-election as FIFA president in 2023. Of course a criminal conviction would make it a different matter.
There is also the further issue of public perception in Switzerland where Infantino has raised hackles amongst politicians and the public with reported comments in local media that he could get meetings with the heads of state of other countries weeks before the Swiss government could. In many countries that is likely to be true but presumably he would be meeting on football matters rather than matters of national importance. But of course one can never be quite sure what they are meeting about, as the Infantino/Lauber case has highlighted.
FIFA and Infantino reiterated that they “are fully available to cooperate with the authorities, whether that concerns meetings that the FIFA President had with the former Attorney General of Switzerland, or anything else.”
Contact the writer of this story at firstname.lastname@example.org