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Soccer match-fixing trial begins in Turkey for 93 suspects as thousands of fans protest
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) ' Thousands of soccer fans shouted slogans outside a Turkish courthouse Tuesday in support of 93 suspects, including the jailed president of the country's top soccer team, who went on trial in a massive match-fixing scandal.
Aziz Yildirim, president of the celebrated Fenerbahce soccer team, and other suspects have been charged in the scandal allegedly involving 19 league matches last season.
Fenerbahce, the champion of the Turkish league, was barred from the Champions League ' the biggest, most lucrative international soccer tournament ' because of its involvement in the match-fixing scandal. The team could be stripped of its domestic title, tossed out of the top flight and forced to play in a lower soccer league, penalties that could cost the club millions.
"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.
Match-fixing scandals last year tarnished leagues in Turkey, Italy, Israel, Finland and Greece even though UEFA, the governing body for European soccer, spent millions to monitor betting and investigate cases in which players and referees were allegedly bribed. Match-fixing scandals were also reported in Africa and Asia.
Match-fixing can generate enormous profits and according to Interpol has often involved Asian crime syndicates. FIFA, the world soccer body, estimates that fixers make between $5 billion and $15 billion in profits each year from manipulating matches across all sports, which attract $500 billion in wagers with legal and unlicensed operators.
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 establishing a crime ring and match-fixing, 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 edge Fenerbahce past 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 rival team's players to play badly, or not play at all, and coercing referees to make favorable decisions.
In one specific case in the indictment, Yildirim is accused of ordering his aides to pay 100,000 euros ($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.
Former Giresunspor president Olgun Peker, described as the main ringleader in a broad match-fixing scheme, is also charged. Peker faces maximum 115 years in prison, according to the indictment.
Fenerbahce risks having its name tarnished like Italian club Juventus, which was stripped of its 2005 and 2006 Italian league 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. Parliament overrided a veto by President Abdullah Gul, who had argued that the amendments gave "the impression of a special arrangement" to save the suspects, including Yildirim.
Former Fenerbahce forward Emmanuel Emenike of Nigeria, who was detained and 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. He is on trial in absentia.
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 maximum three years in prison if convicted.
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara and Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed.