Having a lovely time?: Asil Nadir mistakenly believed he had scaled the heights of British society. Fiammetta Rocco and Hugh Pope chart his downfall

Fiammetta Rocco,Hugh Pope
Saturday 08 May 1993 23:02

'HE WOULD arrive with two shiny Rolls-Royces; one for him and the other for the bodyguards. It was completely over the top. Everyone else came dressed in their baggy tracksuits, and driving Volvos.'

A well-bred Englishwoman is describing Asil Nadir's arrival at Sunningdale School in Berkshire, one Saturday morning in the mid- 1980s, to watch his son take part in sports day. 'None of the English parents has ever forgotten it. If they had Rolls-Royces, and plenty of them did, they wouldn't bring them to a sports day. No Englishman would ever do that.'

In any other country an entrepreneur as wealthy and successful as Nadir might be forgiven for showing off a little. Not in Britain. Sending the young Sirhan - known here as William - to the same prep school as Lord Frederick Windsor was one of many gambits in a futile effort to scale the wall surrounding the British upper classes. But however far he thought he'd climbed, and however much money he gave away to charity, he never made it.

Just a month before he fled to North Cyprus, Nadir lunched with a friend in London who describes a man transformed by the troubles that have plagued him since the collapse of his business empire - Polly Peck International - in October 1990. 'He'd grown fat; his sleek look had gone. He was chain-smoking - though he'd given up six months ago - and seemed very distracted. He talked a lot about the conspiracy he believed was out to get him. The receivers had had all the furniture removed from his flat. He was really very dejected.'

Christopher Morris, one of two Touche Ross partners appointed administrators of the bankrupt Nadir empire, also saw him recently. Morris told a friend, 'Nadir looked really terrible. I've never seen him look worse.'

In the spring of 1990, Asil Nadir had been listed as the 36th wealthiest person in Britain, with assets of pounds 213m. One rung above him was another self-made tycoon, the Lonrho chief Tiny Rowland. A year later, Nadir's name had disappeared from the list.

In the intervening 12 months the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) had raided the Mayfair offices of Nadir's private family company, South Audley Management, confidence in Polly Peck had collapsed and the conglomerate was put into administration leaving debts of more than pounds 1.3bn.

Polly Peck was no South Sea Bubble, for the business was based on solid industries. But Nadir was accused of diverting cash from the quoted company - property of the shareholders - to his personal and private accounts and businesses. The victims were the creditors and the Polly Peck shareholders, many of whom had been persuaded to invest in the company because of Nadir's colourful can-do personality and Polly Peck's reputation for being the fast-growing stock.

Large sums of money are missing. Nadir is being sued for pounds 378m in the civil courts by Polly Peck's administrators and was forced into personal bankruptcy by creditors claiming a further pounds 80m. In December 1991, he was finally charged with theft and fraud. Bail was set at a record pounds 3.5m. Of that, pounds 500,000 in sureties was put up by his ex-wife, who said she would sell her jewels to find the money, and pounds 1m by a Turkish-Cypriot associate and distant family relative, Ramadan Guney. The remaining pounds 2m in cash is said to have come from Nadir himself, indirectly from the Turkish government, or from friends and associates.

In northern Cyprus last week, Nadir may have been exaggerating when he insisted that he would not get a fair trial in Britain, but it is clear that his case is no model for the efficient dispensation of justice. He was first charged on 59 counts of theft and false accounting. Last year, a judge threw out 46, leaving 13 charges relating to pounds 31m. Nearly three years after his troubles began, Nadir had not been tried. That he should have grown impatient with the interminable delays should come as no surprise.

Nadir has also been treated more strictly by the courts than others at the centre of big City fraud trials. Ernest Saunders, the former Guinness chief executive, and Jonathan Cohen, who had headed County NatWest at the time of the Blue Arrow fiasco, were free to travel. Both of Nadir's passports, British and Turkish, were confiscated.

SINCE he first arrived in Britain in 1963 to work in the family's East End clothing enterprise, Asil Nadir had poured his energies into his business. He folded Wearwell, the family business, into an ailing East End clothing firm named Polly Peck and floated the company on the Stock Exchange. Nadir lived by his wits, and he was notoriously inattentive about anything that failed instantly to catch his attention. 'If he liked an idea, he would concentrate 100 per cent,' says a former associate. 'Otherwise, he'd just cut you off mid-sentence. You really had to stay on your toes.'

As the business grew, there was no shortage of bankers - some of them at the heart of the Establishment - ready to help finance Polly Peck's expansion. One was N M Rothschild, the merchant bank. In the early 1980s, Rothschild was, as one former managing director describes it, 'a miserable little bank with a terrific name'. What it needed were new clients with plans for expansion and plenty of vigour. 'Asil Nadir,' the same banker says, 'was just such a client.'

Although the relationship with Rothschild would eventually break down, the blue-chip merchant bank helped Polly Peck grow into a worldwide conglomerate that included interests in electronics, fruit, newspapers and leisure. It bought the American fruit giant, Del Monte, and was the first Western company to acquire a Japanese corporation, the Sansui electronics group. At its peak, Polly Peck was worth pounds 2bn and employed 30,000 people.

As Polly Peck's appetite for acquisitions grew, so did that of its chairman. Nadir and his wife, Ay segul - who arrived with Nadir for his first appearance at Bow Street magistrates' court chatter ing into a portable phone and wearing a floor-length fur-trim med coat - lived in some style.

Home, during the week, was The Bishops Avenue in Hampstead. Weekends were spent on their 700-acre estate, Baggrave Hall, in Leicestershire. Nadir drove a Bentley Continental or a 1986 Ferrari Testarossa in rosso- red with cream leather interior. And every day there were fresh silk shirts, bought by the boxful from the extravagant New York designer, Bijan.

It was a dazzling way of life and many were dazzled. In a profile published in Tatler in May 1990, Nicholas Coleridge quoted a close friend of Nadir's as saying, 'Some people are more highly evolved than others. Asil is very highly evolved.'

Among Nadir's final splurges was the acquisition of one of Britain's finest Palladian mansions, Burley on the Hill, at the heart of the Quorn country in Leicestershire. More than anything else, more so even than acquiring a British passport, owning Burley confirmed to Nadir that he had finally arrived.

It was a mistake many foreigners make. The rules of entry to the British Establishment, neither written nor explained, are meant to baffle outsiders. How was Nadir to know, when he gave pounds 5m to The Spastics Society, that people considered the gesture more vulgar than generous? Or that when Princess Margaret invited him and his wife to dine at Kensington Palace, it was not because the Nadirs had entered some inner sanctum, but because they had donated pounds 100,000 to the NSPCC?

There were no such problems in Cyprus. Indeed, being the chairman of one of the outstanding stocks of the 1980s bestowed upon Nadir a prestige in his homeland that no native son who stayed home ever earned.

The Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, the small enclave carved out by the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974, has been begging for respectability all its life. Its President, the suave, British-trained lawyer Rauf Denktash, is a familiar lobbyist in all the foreign ministries of Europe, and most notably in London. His efforts, however, have been in vain; only Turkey officially recognises the republic.

Nadir's triumph on the international stage helped to allay the suspicions of Turkish Cypriots that the world was against them. Along with the founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, he was the enclave's greatest ambassador-at-large. Little wonder then, that he was received with all the warmth of a conquering hero when he returned home last week. And little wonder that Turkish Cyprus has been so ready to believe Nadir's assertion that he had been brought down by a conspiracy of social snobs and over-zealous lawmen.

The local journalist, Hasan Guler, spoke for many Cypriots when he concluded: 'They went for Asil because they though he was Atilla the Hun.'

'THE FIRST I heard of it was in a telephone call that just said he was arriving,' says Mehmet Ali Akpinar, the editor of Nadir's newspaper, Kibris. Not everyone was surprised. Nadir, it emerged yesterday, had been planning his escape for some time. Detectives from the SFO are looking for a 'big fish' who they believe masterminded the escape. A source close to the investigation said: 'We want the organiser. We want the big fish behind it all.'

Why, after waiting for nearly 30 months, did Nadir choose to leave now? The judge had refused on four occasions to have the conditions of his bail relaxed and his passports returned, reinforcing his view that the SFO and the Polly Peck administrators were out to get him. On 6 April, lawyers acting for Robson Rhodes, his trustees in bankruptcy, accompanied by the Metropolitan Police, removed a large quantity of documents from his home and office, which, they say, he had failed to hand over as he was required to do under the terms of his bankruptcy. If it was proved that Nadir had knowingly withheld information, he could have been charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice and had his bail revoked altogether.

Worse, a secret Scotland Yard investigation into allegations that some of Nadir's associates were trying to influence the outcome of his trial was about to become public. These allegedly included plans to bribe the trial judge, Mr Justice Tucker. The police enquiries began earlier this year after the SFO discovered a secret fund in a Swiss bank account. The fund, apparently created by foreign supporters of Nadir, is said to total pounds 3.5m.

The sentiment that the authorities were closing in on him, and that he would be unable to defend himself, was heightened by Nadir's depression. 'He had become very, very unhappy,' says one friend.

The death on 17 April of Turkish President Turgut Ozal, who had long been suspicious of Nadir, made matters easier. His probable successor, Suleyman Demirel, is likely to take a more flexible view of Nadir's escape.

Despite his troubles, Nadir could still afford to mount a high- cost escape. His lawyer in Cyprus, Aziz Mentesh, said Nadir's fortune in Cyprus totalled more than pounds 20m. Another source close to the Polly Peck investigation estimates the tycoon still has pounds 150m outside the administrators' reach.

In the long run, Turkish Cyprus may come to regret its enthusiastic support for this favourite son. His arrival has shaken their relationship with Britain, home to as many Turkish Cypriots as the enclave itself and the only country apart from Turkey to which its citizens can easily travel. Britain will have little reason to offer Mr Denktash support when talks on the enclave's future reopen in New York later this month.

The implications for Nadir's own future are even more serious. Although he last week told the leading Turkish daily, Hurriyet, that he would soon be visiting Istanbul, travel anywhere will always carry the risk of extradition to Britain.

The life to which he has committed himself will turn out to be very constricting. North Cyprus is small and feels smaller. Just 150,000 Turkish Cypriots live there. Nadir's home is in Lapta, a village of 3,000 people where life revolves around the tea shop, an informal bar and shop, and a garage. His house, though comfortable, is no mansion. A rambling, white-washed, building set on about an acre of land, its verandahs and balconies have a lovely green view over the Mediterranean and its garden is bursting with trees - figs, oranges and lemons. It may have been a fine house for the English doctor who lived there before, but it is hardly a millionaire's palace. Before his return last week, it did not have a telephone.

At the end of last week, Nadir was photographed in his lemon grove, breathing in the scent of freedom. The pleasure of it will not last. Nadir has cast Turkish- Cyprus further into the wilderness than it has ever been. He cannot leave the island without running the risk of extradition. As a result, the entrepreneur who longed to live on the world stage will find he exists only in the half- life of other fugitives, two-bit players in two-bit places.

(Photograph omitted)

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