What made Asil Nadir think he could get away with it?

In returning to Britain from his native northern Cyprus, the fugitive boss of the ill-fated Polly Peck business empire made the biggest gamble of his life - and lost.

"It was the era when Peter Clowes was conning investors, when Robert Maxwell was raiding the Mirror pension fund and all sorts of skulduggery was happening at BCCI," says Larry Elliott in The Guardian. Nonetheless, it is Polly Peck "with its slightly ludicrous name, its rakish chief executive and its meteoric rise and fall" that best captures the 1980s, in all its "garish, tin-plated glory".

Those memories came flooding back last week when Asil Nadir, 71, was sentenced to ten years for stealing £28.8m from the group, which collapsed with debts of £550m in 1990. The actual sum he siphoned off to take to Cyprus was probably far bigger more like £380m. After the bungled investigation that precipitated Nadir's dramatic flight from justice in 1993 (see below), the Serious Fraud Office was taking no chances. To nail him, it brought just 13 sample charges.

In his heyday, Nadir a poster boy of the Thatcher generation and a munificent Tory party donor "appeared to have the gift of alchemy", says Chris Blackhurst in The Independent. The City was "transfixed" by Polly Peck's metamorphosis from an East End rag-trader to a £1.7bn FTSE-100 conglomerate, whose 200 subsidiaries included everything from Del Monte canned fruit to Russell Hobbs kettles.

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"Charming but ruthless, risk-loving but controlling, generous but egotistical," Nadir enticed hordes of investors to buy into his story of "a swashbuckling entrepreneur with global ambitions", says The Observer. His powers of persuasion are legendary. Long-standing supporters, including the former Tory minister Michael Mates (who famously sent Nadir a watch inscribed "Don't let the buggers get you down"), still maintain the tycoon was stitched up. Nadir's devoted 28 year-old wife, Nur (a former intern at his Cyprus newspaper, Kibris), has compared her husband to Jesus Christ.

Born in 1941 in Turkish-speaking northern Cyprus, Nadir cut his business teeth as a schoolboy selling newspapers and razor blades around the port of Famagusta. In 1959, his family emigrated to Britain. After studying economics in Istanbul, Nadir spent the next few years flitting between Britain, Cyprus and the Middle East, building up export businesses. With his "Levantine good looks" and "sharp business acumen", he was, says The Sunday Times, the "ultimate middleman".

In 1980, Nadir seized his chance to hit the big-time when he folded his Cyprus-based fruit trading business into the ailing, but FTSE-listed, Polly Peck. He then rode the 1980s boom: leveraging the company to the hilt to fund a massive acquisition spree before it all came crashing down.

During his comfortable 17-year exile in Cyprus, Nadir had plenty of time to rehash conspiracy theories on the veranda of his seaside villa in the company of his two parrots, Polly and Peck. So why did he abandon this charmed life to return to Britain? Nadir maintains he was driven by "a burning sense of injustice". But the more likely reason, says The Independent, is that the erstwhile "Sultan of Berkeley Square" thought he could swing it. He was convinced the 20-year old case would never come to court. It was the biggest gamble of his career and he lost.

Outsider who stole from his fellow shareholders

At the height of his success, Nadir was one of the richest men in Britain: the owner of country mansions and a house in Belgravia, who listed hunting, racing and donating to charity as his favourite pastimes, says The Sunday Times. Yet he was always "an outsider" who tried and, ultimately, failed, "to buy his way into the British establishment". The Conservative Party is still stalling about repaying a £440,000 donation from Polly Peck.

"The twists and turns" of Nadir's story "read like the chapters of a thriller lies, conspiracies, forgeries, political donations, a ministerial resignation as well as allegation of judicial corruption, Serious Fraud Office (SFO) foul play and MI6 plots," says The Guardian. In 1991, Nadir claimed that Britain, Greece and America had plotted his arrest to destabilise northern Cyprus. He was equally convinced that the Polly Peck collapse was down to a malicious SFO investigation.

Nadir's conviction "dispels any doubts that he stole cynically from fellow shareholders", says Jonathan Guthrie in the FT. It is also a considerable fillip for the SFO. Its new director, David Green, was right to hail the conviction as "a remarkable achievement", says The Guardian. After 20 years, most of the witnesses were either dead or retired, and investigators had to struggle with documentation that "had become contaminated with toxic bacteria".

Nadir twice sought to halt the trial, citing the "impropriety" of the investigation and a dangerous heart condition. Subsequent sightings of him devouring Big Macs and curries confirmed that this was yet another "tall story".