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Tuesday, Dec 10, 2019

India’s fixing fight lacks teeth with no stringent law to punish culprits

New Sri Lanka provisions outlaw match-fixing; India is far behind, say experts from BCCI’s anti-corruption unit .

cricket Updated: Nov 18, 2019 09:11 IST
Rasesh Mandani
Rasesh Mandani
Hindustan Times, Mumbai
The BCCI has a very active anti-corruption unit but it doesn’t have the power to register a case or investigate
The BCCI has a very active anti-corruption unit but it doesn’t have the power to register a case or investigate(Aniruddha Chowhdury/Mint )
         

The next time a cricketer in Sri Lanka is found guilty of match-fixing, or an administrator in that country is found to have been involved in illegal sports manipulation, he or she would face a fine of up to $555,000 or a 10-year jail term, or both.

There are specific laws in Australia and South Africa that make match-fixing a criminal offence. Former South Africa international Gulam Bodi was last month sentenced to five years under the law. In UK, the punishment for such an offence is under the bribery act.

The ‘Prevention of offences related to sports’ law passed by the Sri Lankan Parliament this month is a first for the subcontinent. In a region that attracts maximum illegal sports betting and where manipulators constantly look to tap targets, the absence of legislation has proved the handicap for prosecutors pursuing conviction related to cricket fraud.

Most cricket bookies come from India, the game’s global commercial hub, or have strong links to it. Data from industry body FICCI pegs the market for underground or illegal sports betting at over R300,000 crore.

India however has no law to punish match-fixing and corruption in sport. Legal experts have been advocating for years the need to criminalise match-fixing. “The time has come. At the moment when people do it, the risk of getting caught is low; and even if you get caught, the consequences are that you get a bad name. For a few crore rupees, even if you get a bad name, there are those who don’t mind taking the small chance of getting caught,” says Nandan Kamath, a leading sports lawyer.

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The Supreme Court-appointed Lodha Committee which spelt out reforms in BCCI recommended that match-fixing and sports fraud must be made criminal offences that attract severe punishment.

The court had asked the Law Commission of India for feedback on the Lodha panel recommendation for ‘betting to be legalised by law’ in India and the enactment of a law. The commission in its report ‘Legal Framework: Gambling and Sports Betting including in Cricket in India’ recommended that match-fixing and sports fraud should be specifically made criminal offences with severe punishments.

The absence of a law to address corruption in sports has weakened every case pursued by law enforcement agencies. The 2013 IPL spot-fixing scandal is cited as an example. “Yes, it was a handicap during the (ex-pacer) S Sreesanth case. The court said ‘we are letting them go not because there is not enough evidence but because there is no clear-cut law on the subject’,” says Neeraj Kumar, former Delhi police commissioner who headed BCCI’s anti-corruption unit (ACU). The cricket board’s life ban on Sreesanth was eventually set aside by the Supreme Court, and on its directive to BCCI that it consider his plea, BCCI has said he will be eligible to play again next August.

“Judicial intervention on procedural grounds has often been presented by players as a proof of innocence,” Kamath says. In the case of former India skipper, Mohammad Azharuddin, the Andhra Pradesh High Court in 2012 set aside his life ban imposed by BCCI for the 2000 match-fixing scandal. The ruling has not been challenged. Azharuddin has consistently denied any wrongdoing, and was recently elected president of the Hyderabad Cricket Association.

Little impact

Despite the public shaming of cricketers in the IPL spot-fixing scandal, the proliferating state T20 leagues are the most susceptible for corruption. In the ongoing spot-fixing probe into the Karnataka Premier League, the Bengaluru Central Crime Branch has made multiple arrests; players, coaches, team owners and bookies have been charged with corruption. However, there is a feeling that in the absence of a specific law, the case may not make much headway. The arrests were made under section 420 of the Indian Penal Code (cheating).

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“With KPL police investigations, history could be repeated, where the court may ask, ‘under what penal code are they guilty’? How do you establish the offence?” asks Ravi Sawani, former senior police officer and ex-BCCI and ICC ACU head.

The Indian cricket board’s ACU, which is headed by ex-IPS officers, has its limitations. Its ambit is limited to acting against those (cricketers, team owners, match officials) who come under the ACU Code.

“BCCI ACU is not a police agency. It does not have the power to register a case or investigate. All that it can do is help law enforcement in general. They can collect intelligence. They are closer to the action so they can develop it with the police and make it actionable,” explains Kumar.

The current BCCI ACU head, Ajit Singh Shekhawat, elaborates, “police can arrest bookies, we can’t. They can act against non-participants, we can’t. They can summon anyone, we can just call the participants, and if they don’t come we can infer it is non-cooperation, but police can compel someone to come. Even in terms of collecting evidence, they have much wider powers. Suppose somebody is staying in the hotel with someone, they can check the hotel records, which we can’t due to hotel privacy. If you and I are in touch, they can obtain the call details, which we can’t,” he says.

Criminalise fixing

Justice (retd.) Mukul Mudgal, who headed the 2013 IPL spot-fixing and betting probe, had called for betting in cricket to be legalised. But past ACU heads feel criminalising match-fixing is more important.

“First, you have to criminalise the offence of fixing. There have been so many instances where betting is legal in so many countries, but corruption has been reported,” says Sawani.

Kumar agrees. “Legalising betting will not help at all. People who spot-fix are high rollers; They don’t bet with legal money, they do it in cash. It is a misconception that by legalising betting, corruption in cricket will go. All they need to do is to pass the pending bill and it will bring a change in the scenario for corruption in cricket and other sports,” he says.

Legislation has been in the works for some time. In 2016, the National Sports Ethics Commission Bill was introduced in the parliament as a private member’s bill by MP, and now minister, Anurag Thakur, former BCCI president.

The draft bill says, “any person found guilty of match fixing shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than 10 years and/or with fine which shall be five times the amount involved in the match- fixing.” The bill is yet to be tabled in the parliament.

Pending bill

Even in 2013, the then government had drafted a Prevention of Sports Fraud bill that proposed to act against the entire system, including bookies and their agents. It proposed strong punishment for sports fraud—‘imprisonment for terms that extended to five years and significant fines that could extend to five times the economic benefit derived from the sports fraud’.

Some experts say the overburdened legal system does not require match-fixing to be brought under its ambit. Instead a better internal governance mechanism needs to be put in place.

“The question is where does match-fixing and manipulation fall? To only do it internally, or take the aid of law,” Kamath says. “One has to keep in mind that the internal management is fine if the quality of governance is very high so that public confidence is maintained. Otherwise, a lot of the stuff will be handled internally and no one will know anything about it.”

An internal probe in the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) this year concluded that ‘no actionable incident had been reported’. The BCCI’s internal probe of the 2013 IPL spot- fixing case had given a clean chit to owners and BCCI officials before the court stepped in.

The Law Commission report had concluded quoting Justice DP Madon: “As the society changes, the law cannot remain immutable” and that “the law exists to serve the needs of the society which is governed by it.”