SOFIA, Jan 29 (Reuters) - One of Bulgaria’s richest men, gambling tycoon Vasil Bozhkov, has been charged in absentia with extortion and attempted bribery among other crimes, the Balkan country’s chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev said on Wednesday.
Bozhkov, 63, owns several gambling companies, one of the two most popular soccer clubs in the Black Sea state - Levski Sofia - as well as a large collection of antiques and paintings.
“Vasil Bozhkov has been charged in absentia on seven charges, including organising a crime group, extortion, attempted bribery of an official and incitement to commit criminal offences,” Geshev told reporters, adding that a European arrest warrant had been issued for Bozhkov.
Speaking later to local television channel bTV from what he said was a non-European Union country, Bozhkov denied any wrongdoing and described the accusations as ridiculous.
“Nobody was looking for me, I do not know about any charges,” said Bozhkov, known as “The Skull”.
“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.”
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.
The European Commission has repeatedly rebuked the former communist state for failing to prosecute and sentence allegedly corrupt officials and for not overhauling a creaking judiciary.
“We will make every effort to take Bozhkov to court,” 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.”
Geshev’s announcement came hours after Bulgaria’s parliament backed plans to ban private lotteries and bring the one billion lev ($562 million) market under state control
Bozhkov, who is believed to be worth about $1.35 billion, owns the country’s biggest lottery.
Geshev said at least 16 officials, including the head of the state gambling commission, were detained after prosecutors raided its headquarters and some companies owned by Bozhkov as part of an investigation which started last week.
State auditors launched the investigation after allegations of serious financial violations in the gambling industry, with a reported shortfall of at least 210 million levs in lottery taxes and fees dating back to 2014. (Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by David Clarke)