18 Nadir trial witnesses dead, court told

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Eighteen potential witnesses in the trial of tycoon Asil Nadir have died, the Old Bailey heard today.

They were among 283 people being traced by the Serious Fraud Office following Nadir's return to the UK after 17 years to face trial.

The 69-year-old flew back last month after fleeing the country to the extradition-free Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1993, claiming he would not get a fair trial.

He faces charges of theft relating to a £34 million fraud involving his former Polly Peck business empire.

Philip Shears QC, prosecuting, said 201 witnesses had been traced. Those still alive were being prioritised.

He also revealed that fraud investigators had been struck down by a bug from some of the 1,400 boxes of papers being resurrected from storage for the case.

This had resulted in one member of staff being treated in hospital and other staff being ordered to wear protective clothing.

"A microbial organism caused one member to go to hospital for burns and difficulties," said Mr Shears.

"Health and safety issues have had to be thought about."

In addition to issuing staff with masks, goggles and aprons, some 900 boxes would be given thermal treatment "to negate it".

The trial judge, Mr Justice Holroyde, sympathised with staff but added: "Let's hope there will be no damage to the documents."

Nadir is due to face trial in October next year, and was appearing at a directions hearing.

Nadir, wearing a dark grey suit with a white silk handkerchief in his breast pocket, was allowed to leave the dock and sit next to his solicitor in the well of the court.

The judge said he was only acceding to a request from the defence because he had been told Nadir had a hearing difficulty.

During the hearing, defence counsel William Clegg QC complained to the judge that Richard Alderman, head of the SFO, had made "a mischievous attempt to manipulate the Press".

He said Mr Alderman had tried to gain favour for the SFO in an article in a national newspaper.

The court was told that Mr Alderman had no further plans to comment on the case.

Mr Justice Holroyde said: "There is, of course, a public interest in this case. It is entirely appropriate that the Press should publish legitimate reports of the proceedings."

But he warned that nothing should be published which prejudiced one side or another.

Remanding Nadir on bail which includes an electronic tagging condition, the judge reminded him that if he did not turn up, the court could continue the case without him.

Nadir protested: "I understand, my lord, and I have been attending meticulously."

He added: "I am much obliged".