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Agrokor owner fights extradition from UK to Croatia over alleged fraud

LONDON (Reuters) - The owner of food group Agrokor told a London court on Tuesday he would oppose being extradited from Britain to Croatia to face charges related to an alleged 110-million-euro ($127-million) fraud at the heavily indebted company.

Agrokor’s owner Ivica Todoric, leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, Britain November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Ivica Todoric handed himself into police in London and was detained on a European arrest warrant issued by Croatia. He was later granted bail by a judge at Westminster Magistrates Court, which handles extradition cases.

Todoric and 14 other people are being investigated in Croatia over the crisis at Agrokor, the country’s biggest private firm with 60,000 staff across the Balkans, which was put into state-run administration in April.

Asked by District Judge Richard Blake whether he consented or objected to the extradition request from Zagreb, Todoric said he would oppose being sent back to his home country.

Prosecutor Benjamin Seifert, appearing on behalf of the Croatian authorities, told the court Todoric faced three charges back home -- false accounting, fraud by false representation and abuse of position -- amounting to a total alleged fraud worth about 110 million euros.

The court heard that there was a worldwide freeze on Todoric’s assets.

“This is extremely serious offending,” Seifert said.

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The judge granted Todoric bail with conditions. He is required to provide a security of 100,000 pounds ($131,350), to hand over his and his wife’s passports, to wear an electronic tag and to report to police three times a week.

“The context in which I grant you bail is the knowledge that both in this country and throughout the world your assets are frozen and your ability to obtain money is limited,” the judge said.

In a series of blogs on his website, Todoric has denied any wrongdoing and accused top officials in the Croatian government of plotting against him for political reasons.

An audit ordered by the company’s state-appointed management and performed by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC), showed a net loss of 11 billion kuna ($1.69 billion) in 2016 and of 3.6 billion kuna in 2015, compared with what previous management had said was a net profit of 1.2 billion kuna in 2015.

In the audit, the value of Agrokor’s net worth for 2015 and 2016 was reduced by 22 billion kuna.

Agrokor has yet to say how much it owes. Creditors include suppliers, bondholders and banks, with the biggest single portion of debt, around 1.1 billion euros, held by Russia’s Sberbank.

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Todoric’s lawyer Timothy Otty told the London court his client was an extremely successful businessman who founded a corporate group that had been in existence for 40 years.

He said there were geo-political considerations surrounding the case, linked to “perceived Russian influence”.

“It arises in part from the involvement of Russian banks and financing,” he said.

A full extradition hearing will take place on April 10, 2018.

Reporting by Michael Holden in London, additional reporting by Igor Ilic in Zagreb, writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Stephen Addison