Steaua owner under arrest on kidnapping charges

Friday, April 03, 2009

By ALISON MUTLER, Associated Press Writer


BUCHAREST, Romania — 

The owner of Steaua Bucharest soccer club was arrested early Friday on charges of kidnapping three men who allegedly stole his car earlier this year.

Gigi Becali, 50, was arrested following a five-hour court session through the night, after prosecutors argued he was a "a public danger," Bucharest court officials said. Four others, who are all Becali's bodyguards, were also arrested in the case. Prosecutors said one of the bodyguards shot one of the car thieves in the leg. Becali will be detained for 29 days while the case is investigated.

Hundreds of fans and family members gathered outside the Bucharest courtroom through the night. Some held a sign saying "Free Gigi," shouting abuse at reporters.

Bucharest police said Becali and six employees attacked the three men in January, surrounding their vehicle and threatening them with guns before bundling them into the trunk of a car. The three men were then allegedly driven to a village outside Bucharest and left there, police said.

Becali has said the charges are a setup, claiming that the men had stolen his $162,000 Mercedes and were trying to extort money for its return. He said they had also asked for hush money in exchange for not telling police about the alleged kidnapping.

Becali's lawyer, Gheorghe Mateut, on Friday called his client's arrest "an abuse" and said he would appeal it in court.

Steaua chairman Valeriu Argaseala said the club could manage temporarily without financing from Becali.

Two years ago Becali was Romania's richest businessman with an estimated wealth of $3.35 billion, much of it in real estate. However, he was hit hard by the global economic crisis and said recently he only had $2.68 million in the bank, with $107 million owed to him.

Becali is known in Romania for his verbal outbursts and frequent appearances on television shows. In December he fired Turkish coach Yuksel Yesilova, saying that as a Muslim he brought bad luck to Steaua, a Christian team.

Steaua was penalized in June by the soccer federation after a match-fixing investigation alleged Becali offered $2.3 million to a rival team to lose the last match of the Romanian league and help Steaua win the title.

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