SOFIA (Reuters) – Bulgarian prosecutors have pressed new charges including unlawful possession of antiques of historical value against fugitive gambling tycoon Vasil Bozhkov, one of the country’s richest men, officials said on Thursday.
Bozhkov, owner of several gambling companies as well as Levski Sofia, one of Bulgaria’s two most popular soccer clubs, last month was charged in absentia with extortion and attempted bribery among other offences.
Earlier this month, Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev said Bozhkov had been detained in the United Arab Emirates and his office was preparing a request for his extradition.
Bozhkov, 63, believed to be worth about $1.35 billion, denies any wrongdoing. Bozhkov, who previously owned Levski’s bitter city rivals CSKA Sofia, told a Bulgarian TV channel last month none of the charges against him had been proven but he was afraid to return from abroad for fear of arrest.
Geshev’s spokeswoman, Siyka Mileva, said among the 11 charges now pending against Bozhkov were money laundering and influence peddling.
Bozhkov also owns Bulgaria’s biggest private lottery. But two weeks ago parliament voted to ban such lotteries and bring the one billion lev ($562 million) market under state control in an attempt to tackle corruption, curb gambling among young people and boost funding for sport.
Bozhkov and his Thrace Foundation, named after the ancient region that spanned modern Romania and Bulgaria, northern Greece and westernmost Turkey, has accused the authorities of trying to confiscate his collection of Тhracian antiques, believed to be larger than that held by Bulgaria’s National Museum of History.
Prosecutors and the Culture Ministry said a joint inquiry was underway into the registration of Bozkhov’s 3,000-artefact collection, its origins and the way the pieces were acquired.
There is no official assessment of his collection’s value but Bozhkov said recently he was offered 600 million euros ($652.32 million) by a foreign country for part of it.
Parts of the collection have been exhibited in Germany, Russia and Belgium as well as in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.
Bulgaria is one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the European Union, which it joined in 2007, and has made scant progress towards stamping out graft and organised crime.
(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Mark Heinrich)