Geneva - Former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam won his case against a life ban from football 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's investigation 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 partially 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 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 failure of FIFA's prosecution at CAS comes after it hired an investigations agency led by former FBI director Louis Freeh 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 football in 2002, bin Hammam launched his bid to lead football's 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 football, 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 form 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 world football.