LONDON (Reuters) - A British judge has ordered that Ivica Todoric, founder of beleaguered food production and retail conglomerate Agrokor, be extradited to Croatia to face allegations of fraud totalling tens of millions of euros.
Agrokor, which accounts for 15 percent of Croatian GDP and is the largest employer in the Balkans, was placed under emergency state administration a year ago after it came close to collapsing under a mountain of debt.
Todoric, who founded the company in 1976, has denied accusations of fraud and said the Croatian investigation into his financial affairs was politically motivated.
But judge Emma Arbuthnot, the chief magistrate of England and Wales, said in a judgment delivered at Westminster Magistrates Court on Monday that she had seen no evidence to support that argument, which she dismissed as a “conspiracy theory”.
“I accept that the Agrokor affair has a political dimension as it represents 15 percent of the GDP of Croatia, but the prosecution is based on the evidence uncovered and is not being pursued because of political pressure,” she said.
The fallout from the Agrokor crisis extends beyond Croatia’s borders. The single biggest creditor is Russia’s Sberbank, which has a claim of more than 1 billion euros (876.09 million pounds) and has lodged a criminal complaint of forgery against Todoric and the company.
Arbuthnot said that a Zagreb prosecutor had provided 15 pages of closely typed descriptions of alleged offences, including that Todoric had instructed Agrokor to settle his and his family’s personal expenses to the tune of millions of euros.
She said the evidence suggested that despite not being profitable since 2006, Agrokor had picked up the tab for items such as Todoric’s big-game hunting in Africa and the cost of stuffing the animals he killed.
Todoric, who was present in court for the judgement, has seven days to lodge an appeal against Arbuthnot’s extradition order. If he does not appeal, he will be extradited within the following 10 days.
His lawyer told the court that Todoric had run out of money because his assets were subject to international freezing orders and he was reliant on the kindness of friends and family to pay rent, bills and legal fees.
Todoric, who was granted bail on stricter conditions than before the judgement, told reporters outside the court that he would use all legal means at his disposal in the UK “to pursue his further plans”.
The new bail conditions require him to report to a London police station daily and he will be under a nightly curfew from 2000 to 0600 GMT.
Arbuthnot said that though Todoric had yet to be formally charged, it was clear from evidence received from a prosecutor in Zagreb that investigations were at an advanced stage and there was an intention to try him and 14 others.
She said that, as of April 10, Croatian investigators had interviewed 53 of a potential 65 to 70 witnesses and she quoted the Zagreb prosecutor as saying there was “strong evidence” that Todoric had committed the alleged offences.
Earlier in April Agrokor’s creditors agreed draft settlement terms aimed at saving the company from bankruptcy. They are due to vote on the deal before July 10.
Writing by Sarah Young and Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Peter Graff and David Goodman