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Fake Sheikh — the man behind the smoke-screen

October 22, 2011

Picture shows Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir. The three cricketers who were charged with conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to obtain and accept corrupt payments. -Photo by AP

In the ongoing spot-fixing trial at the Southwark Crown Court in London, the man behind the smoke-screen giving evidence was the former investigation editor Mazher Mahmood of the now defunct News of the World, a Sunday tabloid which claimed that he had brought over 250 criminals to justice besides being instrumental in the covert operation to trap the Pakistani trio of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamir.

Mazher himself, however, remained a lot more modest in claiming that the number of his victims were slightly exaggerated.

Because of his mysterious and secretive existence, not many knew or know his identity, but I had the opportunity of meeting the man a couple of times, indeed, in mysterious circumstances.

The first was in a London casino where I had taken one of my friends for dinner. I noticed a young man walking up to my table flanked by a couple of men and asking me if I was, in fact, Qamar Ahmed.

Citing reference of his father Sultan Mahmood, who he said always met me during the Edgbaston Test every year, Mazher looked keen to strike a conversation. But not getting too much encouragement from me, he withdrew. Perhaps, he was in the casino keeping a watch on another one of his ‘victims’.

When the spot-fixing revelation appeared in the News of the World last August during the Lord’s Test, it did not surprise me because of the fact that it was not the first instance of any Pakistani cricketer(s) getting trapped through Mazher’s sting operation.

The first, of course, was the banned Pakistan Test captain Salim Malik whom Mazher enticed into a five-star hotel in Shepherds Bush, which is just opposite to where I lived, posing as a big businessman ready to dish out money if Malik helped him and his bookie friends to make millions.

In a bugged room, he interviewed Malik. As per his interview published later, Malik promised full co-operation in his venture and more besides it.

I was touring the West Indies then, covering the 2000 series between West Indies and Pakistan. At Georgetown in Guyana, as I was walking out of Beach View hotel to see Pakistan team practice, the day before the Test, I noticed Mazher and his crew checking into the hotel.

He appeared quite sheepish meeting me. Half an hour later he was at the practice ground standing behind the nets, drawing Pakistan captain Moin Khan’s attention.

Sitting in the pavilion, I told the manager of the team then not to let Mazher and his men talk to any of the players. The police immediately hushed them out but as he walked off, he noticed me and headed towards me but the manager wouldn’t allow him in pavilion to meet us.

He and his crew vanished from the scene the next day, and through a phone call from London by a friend, I discovered the two-page story on Salim Malik in the News of the World which made  headlines. Malik threatened action but never challenged the story.

On my return to London, I discovered that Mazher had tried to entice former Pakistan captains Mushtaq Mohammad and Asif Iqbal too but they proved smart enough not to fall in his trap.

Son of late Sultan Mahmood, a migrant from Lahore, Mazher started in his teens as a freelancer, exposing his family and friends involved in pirate videos.

In 1989 he landed a job in The Sunday Times and was sacked for an attempted cover-up of an error he had made, altering some  news agency material then to try and cover up his offence.

The sister paper then came to his rescue and he revelled as an editor with 120,000 pounds a year salary with all the perks and  millions at his disposal to carry out his ‘sting operations’.

Always escorted by a couple of bodyguards, Mazher made successful operations exposing Newcastle United directors and footballers John Barnes, Ian Wright of Arsenal, John Fashnau, boxer  John Calzaghe and world snooker champion John Higgins.

His rating rocketed sky-high when, disguised as a ‘Fake Sheikh’, he enticed Countess of Wessex, Sophie and later Sarah Duchess of York promising them the world and thus getting juicy  stories out of them about the royal family.

His greatest failure was in 2003 when he reported an alleged  plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham, the wife of the famous footballer David.

It emerged in the court that the informant, Florin Gashi was paid 10,000 pounds by Mazher and was an unreliable witness. News of the World was reported to the attorney general for the gaffe.

Mazher’s father, late Sultan Mahmood, would meet me every year during the Edgbaston Test. Always full of himself, he would boast about his sons’ exploits. As a stringer for Pakistan’s Nawa-e-Waqt  in Birmingham, Sultan would offer me to write for the The Nation, owned by the Nizamis. He even published my two page interview in Nawa-e-Waqt in Pakistan five years ago.

His son Mazher branded as ‘The Dirty Digger’ of tabloid press, wrote a book in 2008 called ‘Confessions of a Fake Sheikh — The  King of the Sting’ and even won British press award as ‘Reporter of the Year’ in 1999 and also in 2011 the Sports Journalist award for the much-publicised spot-fixing story.

The ongoing trial against Butt and others is likely to end next week with the jury retiring then for their verdict. Wonder what it will bring for Mazher; another feather in his cap or a failure which brought him down to earth when reported for dirty-digging operation on the Beckhams.