DOHA: A make-or-break anti-corruption tribunal against Pakistan cricketers Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir opened in Doha Thursday with the players facing lengthy bans if found guilty.
The hearing, being held behind closed doors at the Qatar Financial Centre, is scheduled to run until January 11, although lawyers have indicated a verdict may come earlier.
“It has started. All three players are here,” an International Cricket Council official told AFP.
The three face charges of spot-fixing during Pakistan's tour of England last year in a scandal that rocked the sport. It is alleged that they conspired in the bowling of deliberate no-balls -- claims they all deny.
Amir entered the building first, followed soon after by Asif. They came separately by car. Both wore dark suits, but no ties and did not speak with the media.
Butt arrived just before the hearing was due to start, also in a suit and open collar.
They were provisionally suspended by the International Cricket Council (ICC) in September, with the world governing body's code of conduct carrying a minimum five-year ban if corruption charges are proved.
The maximum punishment is life out of the game.
The scandal came to light when Britain's News of the World claimed that seven Pakistani players, including Butt, Amir and Asif, took money from bookie Mazhar Majeed to obey orders at specific stages in the Lord's Test in August.
Scotland Yard detectives raided the team hotel in London, reportedly confiscating a huge amount of money from Butt's room.
The three-man independent hearing is being led by code of conduct commissioner and leading lawyer Michael Beloff of England, aided by Justice Albie Sachs from South Africa and Kenyan Sharad Rao.
Rao told waiting journalists that he felt the future of cricket was bright.
“It is very important for cricket but I can't comment very much on it because we haven't even started,” he said.
“The future of cricket is good because I think that's what this exercise is about. So it should be a very clean game and we can rely on the result of this.”
The hearing was to start with a statement from the prosecution followed by a response from representatives of the three players. All three have serious legal heavyweights going in to bat for them with paceman Asif, 28, represented by Allan Cameron, brother of British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Former Test captain and opening batsman Butt, 26, is represented by British-based lawyer Yasin Patel, while 18-year-old fast bowler Amir's legal team is headed by Shahid Karim from Pakistan.
British newspapers said Pakistan one-day captain Shahid Afridi and head coach Waqar Younis have been summoned as prosecution witnesses.
While the ICC has made clear it will not be commenting until a verdict is reached, chief executive Haroon Lorgat told the BBC recently he was confident of the case against the players.
“We need to send out a strong message and that is part of what we want to achieve,” Lorgat said.
“We've worked hard at collecting all the evidence that we would require to make the charges stand.”
The Pakistan team are currently touring New Zealand, but speaking ahead of the hearing, Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Ijaz Butt told reporters that corruption was a curse that must be stamped out.
“It has to be an all-out effort from all concerned to ensure that such wrongdoing does not occur in the future and we at the PCB are doing all we can to curtail all such practices,” he said.
The scandal is seen as the worst in cricket since that of South Africa's Hansie Cronje.
A decade ago the former South Africa captain, who died in a mysterious plane crash in 2002, was revealed to have accepted money from bookmakers in a bid to influence the course of games as well as trying to corrupt his team-mates.