Pakistan cricket players charged in gambling scandal

London, England (CNN) — Three Pakistani cricket players at the center of a gambling scandal have been charged with “various offenses” by the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council announced Thursday.

Team captain Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir have all said they were innocent but have been provisionally suspended pending a decision on the charges, the council said.

“We will not tolerate corruption in cricket — simple as that,” said the council’s chief executive, Haroon Lorgat. “We must be decisive with such matters and if proven, these offenses carry serious penalties up to a life ban.”

A fine could also be imposed as part of the punishment.

Lorgat cautioned that the players’ guilt has not been proven. “That is for the independent tribunal alone to decide,” he said.

Meanwhile, Pakistani High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hassan told reporters after meeting with the players that he believes their claims of innocence.

“They have not been proven guilty,” Hassan told a throng of reporters. “And until you are proven guilty, you are innocent.”

A police investigation into the alleged scandal is continuing, but no further meeting with police or questioning of the men is scheduled, he said.

Hassan did, however, vow to take legal action to defend the players if necessary.

“I think we will go to the court of law to defend them,” he said.

Eighteen-year-old Amir is the youngest-ever bowler to reach 50 Test wickets. He took six wickets — considered an impressive feat — against England in the Test on which the betting allegations are centered.

For such an exciting prospect, already hugely popular in his homeland, to be tarnished by a scandal like this has depressed many cricket fans in Pakistan.

Asif has already courted controversy in his career. He has tested positive for steroids twice, and soon after the second offense, he was caught with a recreational drug in his wallet at the Dubai airport and was kept in detention for three weeks.

The betting allegations emerged Sunday in the British tabloid News of the World, which reported that two Pakistan players deliberately bowled “no balls,” or fouls, during their Test series with England in London last week. It said the alleged ringleader made 150,000 pounds ($232,800) in the scam.

England won the match at Lord’s Cricket Ground. It ended Sunday afternoon, after the scandal broke.

Hassan said Thursday it is possible the players are the victims of a setup, saying they have been “maligned by the media” and are the victims of “character assassination by the media.”

“You have to investigate to find out whether they’ve been set up or not,” he said. Referring to the News of the World — a newspaper known for its sensational headlines — he added, “What is the reputation of those people who have brought us this story?”

Team manager Yawar Saeed said London’s Metropolitan Police have already questioned him and the three players.

Several people have been arrested in connection with the case. The Met Police arrested a 35-year-old man late Saturday on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud bookmakers and released him on bail Sunday, and customs officials arrested three people Sunday on suspicion of money laundering.

Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari also ordered an investigation into the scandal, his spokesman said Sunday – CNN