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Bulgaria Charges Gambling Czar Bozhkov In Absentia

Vasil Bozhkov is believed to be worth about $1.35 billion.
Vasil Bozhkov is believed to be worth about $1.35 billion.

SOFIA -- Bulgarian gaming czar Vasil Bozhkov has been charged in absentia of extortion and attempted bribery among other crimes, and placed on an international wanted list, Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev said on January 29.

One of Bulgaria's richest men, the 63-year-old Bozhkov has dominated the country's gaming business since the early 1990s after the fall of communism.

He is believed to be worth about $1.35 billion and owns the country's biggest lottery.

Bozhkov owns Levski Sofia, one of the two most popular soccer teams in the Balkan country, as well as a stake in Georgia's national lottery, and a collection of antiques and paintings.

"Vasil Bozhkov has been charged in absentia on seven charges, including organizing a crime group, extortion, attempted bribery of an official and incitement to commit criminal offenses," Geshev told reporters.

Speaking later to Bulgarian media, Bozhkov denied wrongdoing, saying he was not in Bulgaria and was speaking from a non-European Union country.

"Nobody was looking for me, I do not know about any charges," Bozhkov said.

He continued: "I am not a criminal...I am ready to show up immediately if they want me. I have something to say, in my opinion there is a gross violation of the laws."

The charges stem from an investigation into allegations of serious financial violations in the gambling industry, which reported a deficit of at least 210 million lev ($118 million) in lottery taxes and fees dating back to 2014.

Bozhkov told RFE/RL that he believed "everything is paid for in adherence with the law."

He added that if anything was underpaid in taxes or fees, the state could charge him retroactively.

"We will make every effort to take Bozhkov to court," chief prosecutor Geshev said. "This is another oligarch who has fled Bulgaria. I do not know where Bozhkov is but I know he is not in the country."

So far, 16 people have been detained in the tax-shortfall case, including the head of the state gambling commission, and some companies owned by Bozhkov have been searched.

U.S. diplomats in 2005 alleged Bozhkov has been involved in a series of crimes, including money laundering, privatization fraud, extortion, intimidation, and racketeering, and also has close ties to organized crime groups.

The co-founder with whom Bozhkov established a gambling and casino company in 1993, Ilya Pavlov, was shot dead a decade later, one day after he testified in the murder trial of former Bulgarian Prime Minister Andrey Lukanov, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

Bulgaria is one of the EU's poorest and most corrupt countries and has been criticized by the European Commission for not doing enough to prosecute and sentence allegedly corrupt officials and for not revamping its judiciary.

With reporting by OCCRP and Reuters
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