By Peter Griffiths
LONDON (Reuters) - Turkish-Cypriot tycoon Asil Nadir, who built one of the most successful businesses in Britain in the 1980s before fleeing the country after his firm's collapse, was found guilty of theft on Monday.
Nadir, who spent 17 years as a fugitive, was accused of stealing from the Polly Peck empire he transformed from a small textiles firm into the darling of the City of London.
A jury at London's Old Bailey court found the 71-year-old guilty of three theft charges, cleared him of one other, and was still considering nine more counts, the Press Association said.
Polly peck's demise was one of Britain's biggest corporate failures and was a huge embarrassment to the Conservative Party - which is now the senior partner in a two-party coalition government - since it had received donations from Nadir.
The verdict is a major setback to Nadir, who returned to Britain in 2010, promising he clear his name.
The seven men and three women jurors were sent out for the night and will return on Tuesday to consider the remaining charges. The maximum sentence for theft is seven years in prison.
Wearing a dark suit, green tie and matching handkerchief in his top pocket, Nadir appeared shocked when the jury returned the guilty verdicts. His wife Nur left the court in tears and was taken away in a chauffeur-driven Jaguar.
During the seven-month trial, prosecutors presented evidence Nadir had stolen 34 million pounds ($53.39 million) from Polly Peck to enrich himself and his friends and associates.
Philip Shears, prosecuting, said Nadir had transferred millions of pounds abroad through a complicated network of companies and banks. He had used some of the money to buy antiques, pay off debts and to prop up the price of Polly Peck shares, he said.
Nadir argued he had been unjustly treated by the Serious Fraud Office. He did not deny transferring money between Polly Peck accounts, but argued that he had always balanced the books by paying money into other parts of the company.
His company enjoyed a stellar rise during the boom years of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government and during the 1980s became the best performer on the London Stock Exchange.
However, that success came to a sudden halt in 1990 when fraud investigators probed Nadir's finances, triggering a share price crash. The businessman was later charged with theft and fled Britain in a private jet to avoid a trial.
A Conservative minister resigned over his links to Nadir after it emerged he had given the businessman a watch engraved with the message: "Don't let the bastards grind you down."
Born in Cyprus in 1941, Nadir sold newspapers at the age of six before moving with his family to London in the 1950s.
He bought the Polly Peck textiles company in the late 1970s and set about turning it into one of the biggest companies on the stock exchange. Its divisions ranged from consumer electronics to hotels and the Del Monte canned fruit business. ($1 = 0.6368 British pounds)
(Editing by Andrew Osborn)