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Bulgaria’s runaway gaming mogul arrested in UAE

Bulgaria’s runaway gaming mogul Vasil Bozhkov, who was indicted this week for tax fraud and organised crime, has been arrested in the United Arab Emirates, the chief prosecutor said Sunday.

Bozhkov, 63, one of the country’s richest and most powerful businessmen, fled Bulgaria just days before prosecutors raided his home and the offices of his lottery companies in a tax evasion probe.

He was indicted in absentia on seven counts, including as a leader of an organised crime group, for extortion and for bribery of an official.

Prosecutors said that Bozhkov’s private lottery companies used a loophole in the legislation to avoid paying 559 million leva ($317 million) in lottery fees to the state since 2014.

Bulgaria had unofficial information that Bozhkov was detained in the UAE on Friday and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev said Sunday that he had received an offical notification about the arrest.

“The prosecution will perform its duties and send the necessary documents (for Bozhkov’s extradition) in a timely manner,” Geshev said.

Two of Bozhkov’s closest associates were also detained.

Prosecutors also indicted the current and the former chiefs of the country’s commission regulating gambling for “opening an umbrella” over Bozhkov’s lottery business — protecting it against competition and allowing the financial irregularities to pass unnoticed.

Bozhkov spoke to several Bulgarian media before his arrest, denying any wrongdoing and his company Nove Holding issued a statement saying that the charges “aim to take a legal business by force”.

On the day of the raids, Bulgaria’s parliament passed changes to the gaming bill that envisage making the state-run Bulgarian Sports Totalizator the only operator allowed to organise lottery games.

Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member state, has long mulled better regulations for the lucrative sector as thousands of people have been gripped by a craze for scratchcards in recent years.

“For 2018, the money spent on scratchcard tickets amounted to over 1.0 billion leva. This money came from people with predominantly low economic status,” parliamentary budget commitee chairwoman Menda Stoyanova told public BNR radio Sunday.

Bulgaria and the UAE do not have a bilateral agreement for legal cooperation and experts warned that Bozhkov’s extradition might take time.

In the meantime, authorities prepared to confiscate Bozhkov’s archeological collection of over 3,000 ancient history artefacts, including what media say is the world’s richest collection of golden, silver and bronze rhytons.