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    Pakistan trio to face criminal charges

    London: Pakistan cricketers Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir will face criminal charges in Britain over allegations they conspired with bookmakers to fix a match last year against England.

    The trio have protested their innocence to the International Cricket Council but Britain's Crown Prosecution Service said on Friday they and their agent have been summoned on charges of conspiracy to obtain and accept corrupt payments and conspiracy to cheat.

    The players have been suspended from all cricket since September 3 after a British tabloid alleged they bowled no-balls at prearranged times during August's fourth Test at Lord's to fix spot-betting markets.

    It was alleged 150,000 pounds ($241,000) was forwarded through businessman Mazhar Majeed.

    CPS head Simon Clements said the organisation, which was responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by British police, believed it had enough proof to convict the players.

    "We are satisfied there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction and it is in the public interest to prosecute," Clements said. "The International Cricket Council tribunal is due to announce its decision tomorrow, but criminal proceedings are active now."

    Clements said the CPS will apply for extradition orders against Butt, Asif and Amir — the latter of whom has apologised for bowling five overs in a friendly last week — if they do not return to Britain next month.

    Majeed is due to appear for an initial hearing at London's City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on March 17.

    An ICC anti-corruption tribunal, which questioned the players for more than 45 hours in Doha last month, is expected to deliver its own verdict on the players' cricket future on Saturday in the sport's biggest fixing scandal of the past decade.

    The Pakistan Cricket Board says it might consider the three players for the World Cup if they are exonerated but lengthy bans are possible.

    "I would remind everyone that these men are entitled to a fair trial and should be regarded as innocent of these charges unless it is proven otherwise in court," said Clements, whose organisation received a file of evidence from Metropolitan Police on December 7.

    "It is extremely important that nothing should be reported which could prejudice the trial."

    Amir's lawyer Shahid Karim hopes for a positive judgement for his 18-year-old client, who troubled England and Australia batsmen during the English summer until the scandal broke following an investigation by the News of the World.

    But former players and fans believe the trio might not be able to return to cricket, at least in the near future.

    "I think Butt would get the maximum punishment which could be even a life ban," former Test fast bowler Sarfraz Nawaz said.

    On the request of the ICC, Pakistan one-day captain Shahid Afridi, coach Waqar Younis and former security manager Kahwaja Najam Javed also recorded statements at the Doha hearing.

    "The appearance of these three is a clear indicator that the decision would not be in the cricketers' favor," Nawaz said.

    Pakistan fans have sympathy for Amir because of his youth, with some critical of the ICC's process. They complain that the tribunal was closed, that evidence being considered would not hold up in court and that the players were being unfairly prosecuted while those behind gambling go untouched.

    A new group of cricket fans calling themselves the International Organisation for Justice in Cricket, asked in a statement on Friday for the hearing to be halted while British police investigate.

    The group claims to include hundreds of cricket fans from South Africa to Pakistan.

    "The tribunal is at best a kangaroo court and a simple formality to ensure that the careers of the cricketers are ended and the country disgraced," the group said in Dubai. "The real culprits, the corrupt and those incompatible to the honour of cricket, will carry on well after this tribunal."

    Nawaz said Asif and Amir could escape tough punishments only if they could prove that they did not take money and bowled no-balls on the directives of captain Butt.

    "Otherwise it will be difficult for them to get any favors from the tribunal," he said.

    Nawaz urged tough action against the players if the tribunal finds them guilty.

    "The ICC should set some precedent to make the sport clean from this match-fixing and spot-fixing," he said. "It would send a strong message to the players all around the world."