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Match-fixing trial begins in Turkey for 93 suspects as thousands of Fenerbahce fans protest
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) ' Thousands of Fenerbahce fans shouted slogans outside a Turkish court house in support of the club's jailed president who went on trial on Tuesday, along with 92 other suspects, in a massive match-fixing scandal.
Fenerbahce President Aziz Yildirim Aziz Yildirim and the other suspects have been charged in a scandal that allegedly involves 19 league matches last season.
League champion Fenerbahce was barred from the Champions League because of its involvement in the match-fixing scandal and it could be stripped of its domestic title and face relegation. Match-fixing scandals have tarnished leagues in Turkey, Italy, Israel, Finland and Greece last year despite UEFA spending millions of euros (dollars) to monitor betting and investigate cases in which players and referees were allegedly bribed.
"The government might collapse, (chronic) inflation might go down but Fenerbahce can never be relegated!" Fenerbahce fans shouted outside the courthouse in Silivri, a town near Istanbul.
The scandal caused chaos in Turkish football.
The head of the Turkish Football Federation and two of his deputies resigned last month following a controversy on how to deal with teams implicated in the match-fixing scandal, which has implicated officials or players from at least eight Turkish clubs.
Yildirim, who has denied any wrongdoing, is accused of match-fixing and establishing a crime ring according to the indictment, which includes records of wiretapped conversations between the suspects who allegedly exchanged encoded messages.
He faces a maximum of 72 years in prison if found guilty. Prosecutors accuse Yildirim of attempting to manipulate 13 league games, mostly in the second half of the season, to help Fenerbahce overtake then leader Trabzonspor in the league standings.
Fenerbahce went unbeaten through the second half of the season and beat Trabzonspor to the title on goal difference. Officials with Trabzonspor, which replaced Fenerbahce in the Champions League, have also been implicated along with officials and players from several other clubs.
The indictment accused some suspects of bribing a rival team's players to play badly, or not play at all, and coercing referees to make favorable decisions.
In one specific claim in the indictment, Yildirim is accused of ordering his aides to pay euro100,000 ($134,000) to Istanbul Buyuksehir Belediyespor player Ibrahim Akin ahead of a match in May.
"I'll jump off the bridge if they can prove it," Yildirim told reporters during a break in the trial, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
Yildirim, who has led Fenerbahce since 1998, is also accused of indirect contacts with federation officials to arrange "favorable" referees for his team's games and of promising transfers, money, vacations or luxury cars to rival club officials or players as incitement to play either well or badly.
Among the games Yildirim is alleged to have rigged was a crucial final league game between Fenerbahce and Sivasspor which ended in a 4-3 win for Fenerbahce and helped it clinch the title. Club officials are alleged to have held meetings with Sivasspor officials and players and to have offered money for the game to end in Fenerbahce's favor.
Yildirim defended himself saying he had met a Sivasspor official merely to discuss the allocation of tickets and seating arrangements, according to the indictment.
Former Giresunspor president Olgun Peker, described as the main ringleader in a broad match-fixing scheme, is also charged. Peker is accused of fixing matches to help prevent Giresunspor from being relegated from Turkey's second league, as well as using threats and extortion. He faces a maximum 115 years in prison.
Fenerbahce risks having its name tarnished like Italian club Juventus, which was stripped of its 2005 and 2006 Serie A titles and sent down to play in a lower league until it worked its way back up into the top flight.
In December, Turkey's Parliament approved a sharp reduction in prison terms for match-fixing and hooliganism, a move that led to lighter sentences for any suspects found guilty in the match-fixing scandal.
Former Fenerbahce forward Emmanuel Emenike of Nigeria, who was detained and then released without charge in July, is among 14 players charged over alleged match-fixing attempts. Emenike left Turkey following his release and joined Spartak Moscow without playing a game for Fenerbahce.
Emenike, who was playing for Karabukspor at the time, was reportedly promised a transfer to Fenerbahce in return for not playing in a match against the team ' an allegation Karabukspor has denied. The club said Emenike was injured a week before the game and has a doctor's certificate to prove it.
Emenike faces a maximum three years in prison if convicted.
Associated Press writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed.