ISTANBUL // Hundreds of football fans gathered outside a court yesterday as the trial against more than 90 officials, managers and players suspected of involvement in Turkey's largest match-fixing scandal started under heavy security.
Dressed in the yellow-and-blue jerseys of Turkey's champions Fenerbahce SK, fans outside a judicial complex in Siliviri shouted slogans and unfolded banners in support of Aziz Yildirim, the Fenerbahce president, one of the 93 suspects on trial.
"We are right, we will win," read a banner held up by fans of the Istanbul club. A poster with the picture of Mr Yildirim carried the slogan: "We know, We are at your side."
Mr Yildirim, 59, a millionaire businessman, is accused of paying bribes officials and players of opponents, and incentives to teams playing against rivals during Fenerbahce's 2010/2011 title-winning season. Mr Yildirim denies the accusation. He is among 23 suspects being held in custody.
In a statement to reporters in the courtroom, Mr Yildirim denied that he had given €100,000 (Dh483,000) to Ibrahim Akin, a former player of rival Istanbul club, Istanbul BB. "Where are the documents?" Mr Yildirim said, according to Turkish news reports. "If they prove this, I will throw myself from the nearest bridge. It is a shame, a shame"
The match-fixing scandal has rocked this football-crazy country. It has led to the elimination of Fenerbahce from the Uefa Champions League and to the resignation of the leadership of Turkey's football federation. Another leading club embroiled in the scandal, Besiktas, was forced to hand back the Turkish Cup that it won last year. Half a dozen Fenerbahce officials as well as a former vice-president and a former manager of Besiktas are among the accused.
There have been suspicions about possible match-fixing in Turkey's football for years, but this is the first time that a top team has been the target of a criminal investigation. Fenerbahce is Turkey's most successful club with 18 Super Lig titles. It once counted Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, among its fans.
Many Fenerbahce fans say their club had been singled out as a scapegoat. In a move widely seen as an effort to curry favour with football fans, Turkey's biggest political parties teamed up last year to reduce sentences for match-fixing.
Mehmet Ekinci, the presiding judge, tried to calm supporters of the clubs accused of involvement in the scandal. "We are not trying clubs here. We are trying defendants accused of a crime," Mr Ekinci told reporters on Saturday.
The trial is being held in a high-security compound in Silivri, 50 kilometres west of Istanbul, that is also used for trials against suspected coup plotters and serves as a detention centre for Turkey's former military chief and other high-profile suspects. No cameras were allowed in the courtroom, but Turkish news reports said Mr Yildirim appeared to be in good spirits.
Olgun Peker, the former chairman of the club Giresunspor from Turkey's Black Sea coast who has been linked in the media to organised crime in the past, is another key suspect. Officials, managers and players from six other clubs are also charged with fixing matches.
Prosecutors say the accused manipulated several matches last season. One of the games investigated was Fenerbahce's 4-3 victory over Sivasspor on May 22, which secured the championship for Mr Yildirim's club.
In their 401-page indictment prosecutors ask for up to 147 years in prison for Mr Yildirim.
Records of wire-tapped telephone conversations form the core of the prosecution's case. According to the indictment quoted in news reports, suspects talked about the manipulations in code, using the phrase "drinking coffee" for fixing a match and calling football players "construction workers".