Frightened and confused: young Pakistani Mohammad Amir trapped by the underworld

Michael Atherton, courtesy of The Weekend Australian, 5-6 November 2011

 Pic by AP in Australian online

THE day after Mohammad Amir pleaded guilty for the first time, a member of his family was approached in a mosque in Lahore. The message was a simple one: tell Amir to watch his step and watch what he says.  These threats were referred to obliquely by Justice Cooke in his sentencing at Southwark Crown Court on Thursday, when he talked of Amir’s inability to elaborate on the “pressure” that he was put under to bowl the no-balls at Lord’s, pressure that was one part of the basis of his mitigation plea.

“You have referred, in material presented to this court, to threats to yourself and your family, saying that there are significant limits to what you can say in public,” he said. “The reality of those threats and the strength of the underworld influences who control unlawful betting abroad is shown by the supporting evidence in the bundle of documents, including materials from the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit of the ICC.”And they wondered in the ICC hearing in January inDoha,Qatar, why Amir did not come forward and reveal all to save himself from a more serious sentence! The reality of Amir’s case all along has been that of a confused, frightened young man who clearly – as he has admitted – made two serious mistakes at Lord’s but who, immediately before that fateful game and immediately afterwards, did not have anybody whom he could trust.

His captain was busy trying to corrupt him before Lord’s. Afterwards, his lawyers, appointed as they were by the Pakistan Cricket Board and representing another co-defendant, were hardly in a position to give good, independent advice. There was nobody (until the appointment of hisLondonsolicitors) to point him in the right direction. It was a horrendous situation for anyone to find themselves in, never mind an 18-year-old from ruralPakistannew to international cricket.

As Amir said in his mitigation plea, he did not find the courage to take responsibility for his actions until late in the day. But as Imran Khan suggested in a strong character reference, it took immense courage to admit his guilt at all, given that such an admission is unprecedented in Pakistani cricket. It was a heart-rending plea that Amir gave, one that hinted at the story he feels afraid to tell.

“Last year was the most amazing year of my life but it was also the worst year,” he said. “I got myself into a situation I did not understand. I panicked and did the wrong thing. I don’t want to blame anyone else. I didn’t want money at all. I didn’t bowl the no-balls because of money. I got trapped, and in the end it was because of my own stupidity.”

Clearly, Justice Cooke was mindful to some degree to take note of Amir’s exceptional circumstances: his youth, background, naivety and the threats to which he referred. He imposed a sentence of six months, to be served at a young offenders’ institute. This was a much more lenient punishment than that given to Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif, who were sent to prison for 2 1/2 years and one year respectively, but it was a custodial sentence nevertheless.

For a number of reasons this is a harsh and unnecessary ruling. In sentencing Butt, the judge had this to say about the influence the captain had on Amir: “I consider that you were responsible for involving Amir in the corruption . . . For an impressionable youngster, not long in the team, to stand out against the blandishments of his captain would have been hard.”

Not impossible, but hard nonetheless, as the judge agreed.

There was one part of Amir’s mitigation plea the judge did not accept, namely that his involvement was limited to the Lord’s Test. He referred instead to a number of texts that had been found on Amir’s phone before The Oval Test inLondon- texts that had been exchanged with someone inPakistanand that clearly raised the issue of spot-fixing. Yet the judge reiterated in his sentencing remarks that there was “no evidence that such fixing actually occurred”. None.

What we are left with, then, are the two no-balls at Lord’s. Two no-balls that were at the instigation of Mazhar Mahmood, the News of the World journalist. This was entrapment, pure and simple.

While an argument can be made for the wider public interest of the sting, given the broader implications of it, for Amir, someone who had never been under suspicion before the summer of 2010 and about whom there is no evidence of fixing before the Lord’s Test, the effects of it were tragic. In refusing to order the refund to the newspaper of the pound stg. 150,000 used in the sting, the judge said it had got “what it bargained for”. It is laughable to think that the sting smashed open a multimillion-pound betting operation.

Sitting in his ill-fitting suit, unshaven and twitching, Mazhar Majeed in the dock looked like exactly what he is: a small-time crook from Croydon,South London, in debt to the tune of pound stg. 700,000. He looked upon Mahmood as an opportunity to haul himself out of debt and exaggerated his influence over the game to gain the confidence of someone he believed to be a saviour.

The judge was right to ignore his “sales pitch” to the journalist, but wrong even to allow anything that Majeed said of past fixing to have any bearing upon proceedings, because there was no evidence to corroborate phone calls or texts with events on the field. Majeed’s bullshitting has led many to believe that the game is completely corrupt, but Ronnie Flanagan, the chairman of the ICC anti-corruption unit, was right to insist on Thursday that the game remains, by and large, a clean one.

The sentencing of all three players bordered on harsh. There are those who want to see blood spilt, of course – those for whom no punishment is too severe. But in the case of Butt and Asif, because of the sentences already handed out by the ICC tribunal of 10 years and seven years respectively, their careers are already over.

What more do people want?

And as for Amir, there are exceptional circumstances. It is difficult to see what can be gained by sending him to Feltham Young Offenders Institute, a prison, according to its latest inspection, that remains “a volatile environment in which to ensure safety”; where “fights between young people were frequent and vestiges of youth gang culture were inevitably imported”. His defence team has indicated it will appeal.

It was as complex a trial as Justice Cooke’s sentencing was clear. There are those who rejoice at the sight of cricketers being hauled to jail. Here, there is only sadness and the hope that, for Amir, redemption can be found.

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