After 17 years, fugitive tycoon Asil Nadir appears in British court to face 66 counts of theft

LONDON (AP) — A Turkish Cypriot businessman who voluntarily returned to Britain after 17 years to face fraud charges learned Friday that he will have to wait more than a year for the trial he insists will vindicate him.

Lawyers representing Asil Nadir at a brief appearance at London's Central Criminal court demanded that the prosecution present its case within a month, but Justice David Bean gave them until December.

Nadir, 69, faces 66 counts of theft for allegedly stealing 34 million pounds ($52 million) from his collapsed Polly Peck business empire, but prosecutors indicated that the number of charges may be reduced to as few as 15.

"The trial has started. It has been adjourned a very long time, but technically it has started. Mr. Nadir is anxious to have this case heard as soon as possible," said his lawyer, William Clegg.

Philip Shears, representing the Serious Fraud Office, protested that "there is a lot of work to be done," and said it will take until the end of the year to trace the 183 witnesses lined up to testify before Nadir skipped the country in 1993.

Bean set a deadline of Dec. 3 for the prosecution to present its papers.

"The 17-year delay is not the fault of the prosecution," Bean commented.

He set a provisional trial date of October next year.

Nadir, who returned to Britain last week, is free on bail but was compelled to surrender his passport. As he returned, he told Sky News that "my innocence is sufficient security for me."

Nadir took control of British textile company Polly Peck in 1980, using it as a vehicle for acquisitions including Del Monte's fresh fruit operations and Japan's Sansui Electric Co.

The company's share price collapsed after investigators began probing irregularities in Nadir family trusts, and it filed for bankruptcy protection in 1990.

Nadir fled to Cyprus four months before he was scheduled to face trial.