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Bulgaria's Fugitive Gaming Czar Arrested In U.A.E.

Bulgarian billionaire Vasil Bozhkov was arrested in the United Arab Emirates on January 2.
Bulgarian billionaire Vasil Bozhkov was arrested in the United Arab Emirates on January 2.

SOFIA -- Bulgarian gambling czar Vasil Bozhkov has been arrested in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) on charges he is facing at home of tax fraud, attempted bribery, and organized crime, the chief prosecutor said on February 2.

He was arrested with two other suspects, Bulgarian Prosecutor-General Ivan Geshev said from the seaside city of Varna while attending an anti-crime rally.

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 among other assets that include a stake in Georgia's national lottery, a minority stake in the Levski Sofia soccer team, and a collection of antiques and paintings.

Last week, Bozhkov was indicted in absentia on seven counts, including being a leader of an organized crime group, incitement to commit criminal offenses, and extortion.

Authorities say Bozhkov avoided paying about $317 million in taxes and fees related to his private lottery companies dating to 2014.

Bozhkov has 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 to recover the shortfall.

Among the more than a dozen suspects detained in the tax-shortfall case are the current and former heads of the state gambling commission. They are accused of providing protection to Bozhkov by shielding his companies from competition and ensuring the financial wrongdoing went unnoticed.

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.

The U.A.E. and Bulgaria don't have a bilateral extradition agreement.

Georgi Popov, the majority owner of the Levski Sofia soccer team and business associate of Bozhkov, was also arrested in the U.A.E. together with a third suspect.

Meanwhile, the authorities have begun preparing to confiscate more than 3,000 items in Bozhkov's antique collection, including what local media say is a vast array of golden, silver, and bronze ancient Greek drinking horns or rhytons.

With reporting by AFP
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