x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

World Cup betting yields mass arrests across Asia

Thousands of people have been arrested as part of a campaign against illegal World Cup betting.

Interpol released this photo which shows betting records and cash that were seized in Singapore during an operation targeting illegal football gambling in Asia during the World Cup.
Interpol released this photo which shows betting records and cash that were seized in Singapore during an operation targeting illegal football gambling in Asia during the World Cup.

BEIJING //Thousands of people have been arrested across Asia as part of a campaign against illegal World Cup betting that has again exposed the scale of the crime across the continent. The crackdown, which lasted from June 11 to July 11, saw 5,000 people taken into custody and the seizure of US$10 million (Dh36.7m) in cash.

Police made arrests in China, including Hong Kong and Macau, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore in a series of raids co-ordinated by Interpol in an operation dubbed Soga III. Despite frequent crackdowns, Asia has a thriving underground betting scene that in China alone is thought to be worth $150 billion a year, much of it linked to football. "The results we have seen are impressive, not only in the number of arrests and seizures made across the region in just one month, but in terms of the police co-operation which made this possible," Jean-Michel Louboutin, Interpol's executive director of police services, said in a statement.

He said that, as well as having "clear connections" to organised crime, illegal football betting was also linked to corruption, money laundering and prostitution. "Operation Soga III will also have a significant long-term impact on these serious offences as well," he added. Almost 800 illegal gambling dens that dealt with bets worth a total of more than $155m were raided as part of the operation. Cars, bank cards, computers and mobile phones were seized during the raids and officials said they would be trying to link the activities of those arrested to other gangs in Asia and worldwide.

The operation was co-ordinated by Interpol's headquarters in Lyon, France, and its liaison office in Bangkok. Gambling has been banned in mainland China since the Communist takeover in 1949, although there is a vast underground scene that attracts people because of its higher returns and easier credit terms. The only legal forms of gambling on the mainland are the two state-run lotteries launched in 1987. In 2008, these had revenues totalling $15.6bn, but illegal gambling in China has been estimated to be worth 10 times as much, with most of it revolving around private lotteries, internet betting and illegal casinos.

Some have advocated lifting the ban, saying the tax revenues generated from the industry could be channelled into welfare and education schemes. However, the Chinese authorities said before the World Cup began they would launch the "most severe" crackdown on football gambling and as well as the Soga raids, there have been other high-profile operations in recent weeks. A month ago, police broke up what was described at the time as the biggest ever online gambling ring in Hong Kong through an operation run jointly by police in the territory and in nearby Shenzhen on the mainland. According to the government's Xinhua news agency, the gambling ring had taken more than HK$100m (Dh47.3m) in football-related bets.

"We will put the highest priority on smashing football gambling on the internet during the World Cup," Gu Lian, a spokesman for the ministry of public security, said before the tournament began. "We will continue to exert great pressure and take severe measures against gambling." This month, 93 people from Hong Kong and the mainland were arrested in another joint operation against a betting syndicate that received online and telephone bets, many from the mainland, through more than 400 bank accounts, according to local media.

The recent raids during the World Cup follow work by police to stop illegal betting in China during the 2006 tournament in Germany. One computer seized by police in Beijing was said to have attracted bets worth more than 100m yuan (Dh54m) in the space of a month. As another indicator of the scale of interest in gambling in the region, 60 per cent of the $13bn in revenue generated by online gambling companies during the 2006 World Cup was said to have come from the Chinese mainland and Southeast Asia.

Illegal betting is widely thought to have a corrupting influence on Chinese football, with reports of referees disallowing legitimate goals and blowing the final whistle early to influence the outcome of matches. The latest SOGA operation follows two smaller initiatives. In total the three have resulted in almost 7,000 arrests and the seizure of $26m in cash. The gambling dens closed as a result of the series of raids handled more than $2bn worth of bets, Interpol said.

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae