By Peter Griffiths
LONDON (Reuters) - Businessman Asil Nadir was jailed for 10 years on Thursday for stealing millions from his British business empire to fund a luxury lifestyle, ending a 22-year fight to convict a man once seen as a darling of the UK corporate world.
The 71-year-old Turkish Cypriot was convicted of stealing 29 million pounds ($45.83 million) from Polly Peck, an ailing textiles company which he transformed into one of the most successful British firms of the 1980s.
The company collapsed in 1990 when British officials began a fraud investigation. Nadir was arrested but after being released on bail fled the country in a private plane to live in northern Cyprus, where he was beyond the reach of British law.
It was one of Britain's biggest corporate failures and was an embarrassment for the Conservative Party, which accepted big donations from Nadir in the 1980s and is currently in power.
Driven by a "burning sense of injustice", Nadir returned to London in 2010 to clear his name after 17 years on the run.
But his gamble failed when a jury at the Old Bailey court found him guilty of 10 out of 13 charges of theft.
"The company's money was not your money. You knew that. You nonetheless helped yourself to it. You committed theft on a grand scale," judge Tim Holroyde told Nadir, according to the Press Association.
A flamboyant figure, Nadir wore double-breasted suits with matching silk ties and handkerchiefs during the seven-month trial. He would arrive at court in a chauffeur-driven Jaguar with his wife Nur, 28, and two burly security guards.
"My husband is innocent," his wife said outside court, her voice cracking with emotion. "We will continue with our efforts to rectify the wrongs."
Nadir admitted taking money from Polly Peck, but said he always balanced the books by paying money into other parts of the business.
In his heyday, Nadir was regarded as having the Midas touch. Polly Peck was the top performing stock on the London Stock Exchange during the 1980s after he struck deal after deal, including the takeover of the Del Monte fruit company.
Nadir used his vast wealth to buy the lifestyle of an English gentleman, with two country estates, racehorses and a garage packed with Range Rovers and Rolls Royces.
Eager to be accepted by the British establishment, he donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservatives, the centre-right party led by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
However, his patronage proved embarrassing after the Serious Fraud Office began the Poll Peck investigation.
Conservative minister Michael Mates, a friend of Nadir, resigned in 1993 when it emerged he had given the tycoon a watch engraved with the words "Don't let the bastards grind you down".
Opposition Labour lawmaker Simon Danczuk said on Wednesday that the Conservatives should repay the money. A Conservative spokesman said the donations were received in good faith more than 22 years ago from what was then a leading British company.
The Serious Fraud Office said it suspected Nadir stole 150 million pounds from Polly Peck, although only 13 specimen charges totaling 29 million pounds were brought before the court. Nadir must serve half of the 10-year term before being considered for parole.
After being sentenced, Nadir turned to wife, smiled and said goodbye. ($1 = 0.6328 British pounds)
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)